Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Love Birds' First Cruise Recap Pt. 4: The Nitty Gritty

{Catch up here with Pt. 1, Pt. 2 and Pt. 3!}

These are some of the nitty gritty details for those of you who want to go beyond what we did to more of the logistics and my opinion on our experience . . .
The Ship Itself/Royal Caribbean's Brand 

We were on the Mariner, built in 2003 and from online forums there were suggestions that the ship was showing its age. Since this was our first cruise I couldn't exactly tell what a new vs old ship would look like but paying attention to small details I couldn't tell much signs of aging apart from a part of the lower portion of panel on the shower coming off - it was very minor. Everything else seemed clean, working well and freshly painted. I noticed there was always staff around cleaning and straightening up but not in an obtrusive way. 

I paid attention to many small details too like if the carpet was worn, the cabinets, handles, railing etc. and everything was in good working order from what I could tell.

I was a sucker for the nautical themes onboard
When we docked alongside the Allure, a newer, bigger ship, I couldn't tell the age of the ship just by looking at it only to see one was bigger than the other but it was obvious that they were cohesive in their branding.  

As I mentioned in Part 1 I was familiar with the brand from my ad agency days, and I was confident being on the ship especially in light of the recent Carnival incident. 

Tiny but efficient
As my regular readers know from my Squeaky Wheel series I'm a stickler for customer service and I didn't have any complaints about how we were treated by the staff, which were international. Everyone except maybe one staff member of the hundreds I encountered seemed thoroughly happy to be doing their jobs. My only service complaint would be that the custodian who came to clean the cabin when I was sick was not wearing gloves. 

Another interesting part about the staff was their demographic - besides them being mostly international, they were on the younger side which makes sense, but I found that I related to them more than my fellow passengers which were older (I'll get to that in a minute. . .).

The Food

Ahhhh the food! I had no idea the first couple nights about the tip to order several different things at dinner (but for my waistline that was probably for the best!). 

I had also been given advice pre-cruise to eat at the specialty restaurants which were extra beyond the inclusive meals included in the cruise fare, however I found I was perfectly happy with the food provided. Our particular ship didn't have the Chef's Table as a reader mentioned, but it's definitely something I'd be interested in trying on a future cruise. 

I noticed the food department was very keen on re-purposing certain things for leftovers, which I didn't take offense to, but it was interesting to see the smashed green peas from the last day's World Food Bazaar (another food leftover event) show up as an ingredient of a dish on that night's dinner menu!

My Time diners ate in the the Sound of Music dining room, 2 levels above this one
Taking a step back for a minute, a bit on the eating set-up on-board: meals are included in the cruise fare. Dinner is an assigned meal time - 6p.m. or 8:30p.m. in a particular dining room. For the duration of the week you're assigned to a table as to build camaraderie with the same guests. 

Our waiter was nice enough to indulge my request for a smiley faced ketchup a la Johnny Rockets (which they actually had one onboard, but we didn't go)
We opted for My Time Dining which was flexible dinner times that we could change based on our activities of the day. I would highly recommend this especially if you're not committed for medical reasons to eat at the same time every day. Also, we wanted some quiet time at dinner with just us as it was pre-Lil Love Bird so we opted for a 2-top, which they had no problem accommodating. We still had a chance to build camaraderie as there was another 2-top beside us we ate with several nights and another group to our right who we noticed ordered onion rings each night yet we couldn't find them on the menu. The last night I couldn't help but ask and they told us they had a standing order put in when they booked their trip (ahhhh experienced cruisers!). They then offered us some and they were DIVINE! Now we know for next time. . .

The only time we switched it up was when we were invited impromptu while waiting to be seated at our dining time to join another group of two couples who were closer in age to us which ended up being a lot of fun and we kept bumping into them throughout the week. (Also, they were the ones who taught us about ordering several items from the menu!)

For breakfast and lunch there was a buffet with pretty much anything you could want hot or cold (we were especially fond of RC's donuts), and in between for snacks there was a 24 hr snack bar with mini sandwiches, pizza and dessert. We also ate at the hot dog car on-board that also had specialty sausages too; it was SO good!

The Entertainment

I expected a big cheese factor and yes, there was when it came to entertainment, but I took off my "I live in NYC where there's Broadway" hat to just have fun - that's all I wanted!

Each night was a different mainstage performance, but these were my faves:
  • Tony Tillman was my favorite - a ball of energy who could dance sing and was pretty funny! His energy was awesome 
  • The orchestra's tribute to John Williams - listening to that made me nostalgic for the 80s; they did a phenomenal job! 
Again, from a demographic perspective the entertainers, like the cruise staff, were closer in age to us, and I kinda wish we could've hung out with them sometimes! As I mentioned in an earlier part of the recap, we ended up meeting one of the performers who was staying on our floor, and he turned out to be the only person the entire cruise I met who had lived in NYC. 

One of the clubs onboard
Besides the mainstage evening shows (they usually repeated twice for early and late diners and were 45 minutes), there was a myriad of entertainment from comedy, karaoke, trivia, a movie theater (sadly, we kept missing the Moonrise Kingdom screening), live music ensembles across so many genres and clubbing. There was so much we didn't even take advantage of!

Maybe our fellow cruisers were more excited while attending these other options for entertainment, because I couldn't get over how unresponsive they were at times during the mainstage performances. Sure you'd get some who'd clap or dance or laugh but for the most part our fellow cruisers were a tough audience to please!

This leads right into . . . 

The People

Ahhhh the people. Something I've noticed in advertising for both cruising and casinos is that the models and actors used in both of these industries are much younger than what the actual attending demographic is. Have you noticed that too?

Even in the brochures and messaging on board everyone looked to be in their 20s and 30s, but in reality most people were 60+ and not in that great of health. There were many sickly looking people and one night at dinner even a code blue. Discussing this with elderly, experienced cruisers they rehashed many incidents of coffins leaving the cruise ship upon return to port after passengers have passed away. They said it as though it was a regular occurrence, but I guess if it's something you really love to do it's a great way to go.

Anyway, despite wanting to be alone at dinner, as I mentioned above in The Food we spent a lot of time chatting it up with our fellow cruisers and we noticed most of them were elderly white, Christian Texans. Nothing wrong with that but coming from NYC it was very interesting to say the least.

We found most people were warm and inviting and I'm going to be honest folks: some people did stare at us. Well maybe Mr. Love Bird for his height, but white men were especially staring at me and Mr. Love Bird was keeping track of this the entire cruise. I just brushed it off, but it was odd indeed.

I'm not one to seek out incidents of racism, but based on the demographic, which we were pretty quickly aware of when we boarded, Mr. Love Bird was pretty sure something was bound to happen before we returned home and sadly he was correct: on the last night the waitstaff performed to a song from Slumdog Millionaire and we were the only black people on our side of the dining hall. The music was loud and I walked over to see the performance closer but Mr. Love Bird stayed in his seat. A white man who was two tables over at a large group table kept trying to encourage people to dance and shouted out to Mr. Love Bird, "Hey c'mon you're black - you can do it!" and he yelled it so loudly that the other white people surrounding looked embarrassed for the guy. Mr. Love Bird made eye contact with a woman near him who shook her head in disgust and Mr. Love Bird just gave him "a look." Totally ignorant and unnecessary. It really put a bad taste in Mr. Love Bird's mouth, but I reminded him we had had a great trip and that idiot was definitely in the minority. 

Going back to the people being hard to please during performances, we also got the sense from some cruisers that they seemed to be desensitized from cruising having gone on so many in their lifetime. It was almost depressing and they seemed like they were obligated or something to keep cruising. 

Despite those desensitized types, I was inspired by older people who were on our Belize excursion to go cave tubing and who shared with us other adventurous excursions they had gone on such as ziplining - we weren't even game for that especially with Mr. Love Bird's giant status (he's 6'8")! We didn't want to risk him getting stuck in the middle of the line!

There were pockets of younger cruisers, but as I told my active parents in their mid-50s, they'd even be younger than most people on our cruise! We saw a large obnoxious group of Rice University students on the ship as well as teenage dance troupe groups. I was also surprised to see handfuls of school-aged children on board which brings me to . . .

Children & Cruising 

I was a skeptic of children going on cruises before going on one and now having been on one, I now know I would not take a young child on a cruise. What really sealed the deal was the wait through customs to get off the ship - I would not want to put my child through that. I really felt bad for the kids I encountered. 

Also, kids have a curfew on board (11 or midnight I think it was), but even still the LOs up til 9/10p.m. just looked plain miserable with their parents dragging them around and the parents didn't look like they were having a good time either. 

Now I could see going on a family themed cruise, but as the two other couples we met while at dinner who had 7 children between them did, I'd leave the kids at home! One of the couples admitted they did take their kids on a cruise a few years back and that it was actually an affordable vacation given the inclusive nature of it, but that's something I'd do when my child is a pre-teen

I kept thinking on and off while cruising, "Imagine having my 2 1/2 year old here!" and I'd shudder. It would not have been a pleasant vacation for me - not on the type of ship we were on, and I'm not going to pay for her to go just so I can stick her in daycare. 

Honestly, I'm trying to think back to all the kids under 10 I saw to gauge if I remembered any having a good time and I cannot say I did. I just saw really miserable looking kids and parents.

I don't even want to imagine taking my Lil Love Bird through the disembarkation process!
Oh and another thing, with port visits, going through security and dealing with baby gear - that was definitely something I would not want to do!

Now this isn't to say that Royal Caribbean didn't have activities for kids - I actually checked out the kids' area, and it was kinda far removed and dark actually, but on the daily listing there were fun things that kids and parents could do together. That's wonderful and all, but for me unless I'm on a Disney/family themed cruise, cruising = romantic getaway with my spouse at least until the kids are in middle school!


This is where my month-long college experience in Jamaica kicks in...my first visit to the Caribbean was that trip and we only spent one night in tourist-haven Ocho Rios and that was after being in the interior of the country to really see what life was like.

With that in mind, I knew to expect the tourist traps at the ports, the dollar knick-knacks and usual souvenir fare. Also, besides Jamaica, I had played tourist and gone to St. Thomas years ago on my own and was turned off by the commercialization of the port and how tourists swarmed in. 

The ports we visited on our cruise were Roatan, Honduras, Belize City, Belize and Cozumel, Mexico and onboard the ship in preparation for this the ship's shopping guide would promote all the jewelry and luxury goods that could be purchased at the ports. I don't fully understand the connection of this or why it came about, but from what I know it has to do the advantageous tax situation/duty free etc. 

We weren't there to shop, but it was fascinating to see how commercialized the ports indeed were (especially Cozumel), but as our Belizan tour guide pointed out tourism really is what drives the Caribbean. It's as thought it's a necessary evil, and I felt turned off by it. 

I really wanted to explore and despite our scooter mishap that's when I felt like I was having a more authentic experience although going to mainland Mexico and hiking around would've been more my speed or even going to a more remote beach (but it was ridiculously cold that day).

Regardless, I tend to be very conscious about things like this, and that's why in Belize I'm glad we got to go cave tubing and really learn about the Mayan culture and explore nature. Despite us all being packed in an AC bus and getting awkward photos taken of us like typical tourists, I liked being in a place with such history. That's what felt real to me! (And I'm still trying to find a place to develop my disposable underwater camera film ughhhh!)

From a bookings perspective, if I had the time I would've looked far and wide to know what vendor to go with and choose an independent one when selecting excursions, but because of me getting sick and wanting to play it safe, we booked with Royal Caribbean directly for our excursion. You're encouraged to do it pre-cruise, but like us there were plenty of people walking up the day before to book. It was very simple and easy and I preferred this way vs. showing up to port and haggling with a vendor to negotiate a rate then setting off. Yes, it was crazy expensive to go through the cruise line, but who knows how much time would've been lost going through that process, and as a first timer I'm glad we went that route. Next time I'd be more likely to research in advance to know which vendors to look for at each port. 

And a word about Trip Advisor . . . it is a fantastic resource especially the forums! Since I wasn't feeling well the day before our first port we took it easy in Honduras so we simply looked up beach recommendations and went with what we saw. It didn't disappoint! TA is my #1 favorite travel resource (and no, I'm not an affiliate).

Leaving My Lil Love Bird

Nia with her cousins the morning we left
It really is amazing how it all worked out for our uncle and aunt in Boston to keep Nia the full week - they were such a blessing to us! 

Although Mr. Love Bird and I got married in Puerto Rico, we never took a honeymoon - I took a week off after the wedding, but he was still working as he was there playing basketball. For us, this cruise felt like a honeymoon. Going into it I didn't think of it like that, but after we arrived and someone asked us if we were on our honeymoon I thought, "Hey! I guess we are!"

Being with my Lil Love Bird each day is a blessing, but honestly, I was needing a break! When we went to Las Vegas for Blogalicious '12 that was the longest I had ever left her. Now I'm not the martyr mother type who brags about how I've never ever left my toddler and can't imagine it. Quite the contrary - I am EXCITED when I get to recharge, refresh and get away. It makes for a much happier mommy and a much stronger bond between me and my husband.

The best part for Nia is that she got to be with cousins ages 3, 6 and 8. We prepared her for this by explaining what was going to happen days before and of course she's a smart girl and saw us packing and she helped me pack her bag. We drove her to Boston the Friday night before our Sunday departure and Saturday afternoon when we left she was practically kicking us out the door!

We found out later she had a rough 24 hours but after that she forgot about us and jumped right in line with the routine of daily life with her cousins. I didn't call in to check on her because we had done this when we went to Las Vegas and it made her upset - it really is all about outta sight, outta mind when it comes to toddlers!

While on the ship I missed her a little, but really her silly antics which caused me to watch videos of her and look at pictures of her with Mr. Love Bird from time to time. She knows how to make me laugh for sure!

I drove to get her the Monday morning after we returned to NYC and at first she was a bit bashful then walked over slowly to sit on my lap with her head down (I kneeled down and rested on my heels). She looked like she didn't know if she wanted to laugh of cry which nearly made me tear up. I was wondering on the cruise if in her mind we had completely abandoned her especially because she doesn't have a fully developed sense of time. 

We packed up her things to leave and she was a little reluctant, but once we got outside and she saw the fun ride she was ready to go (oh and we picked up a donut treat for the ride home!).

So my tips for leaving your child behind:
  • If age appropriate, prepare the child for the separation and involve them in packing (we also included her lovey, Boo Toby)
  • Leave an envelope with travel details (we also included copies of our passports and an extra copy of our insurance card just in case)
  • Outta sight, outta mind - especially if a toddler don't speak to them while you're away or it might upset them
  • Bring a special treat upon your return
  • If for an extended time, try to leave them with someone who has another child so they have a playmate
Reader Q & A

Teresha from Marlie & Me asked: Do you think the cruise was too long or just the right # of days/nights?: 

We had the option of a 4 - 7 night cruise, and we selected 7 nights to maximize the experience. While it may seem like a long time to be on a ship, I found it made me feel very restful. It took a couple days to get acclimated and into the cruising mindset, but I think as a first time cruiser I needed those extra days (and too because I then got sick). We were able to fully unpack and get in vacation mode. There are also varying opinions about doing a port-intensive cruise vs. less ports/more days at sea, but I'll have more to share on that in my last first-cruise post . . .

My Top Tips for Your First Cruise . . . stay tuned . . .