Claudine and I really enjoyed our cruise in 2011, and decided this year to take the whole family. Everyone but Michael was able to go. That’s right, Claudine and I and 4 kids, on a cruise.
We started the process of looking for a cruise in November, we were hopeful that we could take advantage of the “Friends and Family” rate, since Claudine has a family member who works for Royal Caribbean, but it didn’t work out.
We got the Friends and Family rates for cruises in January and started looking at what was available, the problem is, everything is short notice. When we got the list it was over the new years day holiday, and we couldn’t get in touch with the FAF coordinator until like 4 days later. We called Royal Caribbean and there was limited availability to begin with. It was going to be hard to book the rooms we wanted if we waited. They worked with us and we booked it.
Flying 6 people was out of the question, even leveraging miles, so we elected to drive. I originally planned on renting a van, but in the end we decided to just leave a day early and roll the dice with our mini-van. It worked out well and saved us another bundle of cash.
The ship left from Ft Lauderdale, we left Friday the 11th around 1:30pm, and pretty much drove straight through to Melbourne, Florida where my parents are vacationing and watched the sunrise and had breakfast with them. Then on to our first over-night in West Palm Beach about an hour from the terminal. I wanted the extra day just in case. It was roughly 1200 miles one way.
We had 6 people, and 3 rooms. We could have shoved all 4 kids in a single room but that would not have worked out well, I’m glad we booked it like we did. Claudine and I had a balcony and the kids had connecting interior rooms across the hallway.
The Independence of the Seas is basically the same ship as the Freedom that we sailed on last time. It’s physically the same but as we learned there were differences other than just the décor. Maybe it was simply that we were overwhelmed or overly impressed the last time. I certainly felt the cruise on the Freedom of the seas was all 5 stars. On Independence it was a mix of 5 star items and 4 star items. The entertainment for example, was head and shoulders above on the Freedom of the Seas.
This cruise was a 6 night cruise. 3 port days surrounded by cruising days. We left on a Sunday and returned on a Saturday. So basically 5 ‘days’ not in the port from which we left.
Our Itinerary was:
We spent the first day showing the kids around, and getting oriented, letting them be awed and figure out what they wanted to do. In all honesty, the first day was half a living hell. Some of the kids were kinda grumpy, which made me second guess the whole thing. Matthew in particular was completely over stimulated and decided he’d ‘test’ his parents. But by the end of the evening, things had settled and everyone was having fun. Matthew found his stride in the ‘Aquanauts’ program. Which is like onboard day-care only a whole lot more fun. He really enjoyed the activities, and the Royal Caribbean crew in the kids area were outstanding.
The first night was also the first of two formal nights. Of which we learned that I had no-dress socks. How’d that happen? Of course there were none to be had on the ship. The clothing store on the Freedom had dress socks, ties, lots of things like this. Even the tailor who rented tuxedo’s didn’t have any. Grrrr…. So if you ever wondered if you can shove size 10 feet into kids dress socks designed for kids size 13-2. The answer is yes. Not very comfortable, nor much fun but it can be, and has been done.
Day 2, was our first port day. With a stop in Grand Cayman. We were supposed to stop there during our 2011 cruise but weather didn’t allow it so Claudine and I were really looking forward to it. We were highly encouraged by friends to do the stingray encounter at stingray city. We are cheap, so booking excursions through Royal Caribbean has never been our thing. We considered it since we were taking the kids and that added security of making sure you’ll get back on the boat does have some value. But none-the-less we chose not too. At breakfast on day one we met another couple who said you must do the stingray encounter so we decided to make that a top priority.
We weren’t in Grand Cayman that long, we docked at 9am, and were to be back by 3pm. We got off the ship, the girls hit up the jewelry stores for their free charms then Claudine did her magic, negotiating with the local tour company. She secured our Stingray encounter for $25 per person, with Matthew being free. They were advertising the tour for $45, which included transportation to and from the ship, 45 minutes with the stingrays and 45 minutes snorkeling. The same tour if booked with the ship was well over $75 per person so that was a score.
We hopped in the van which drove us to the pier on the other side of the island. There we hopped into a fishing boat probably designed to hold 30 people with 54 other people. It was a tad crowded, but we weren’t going that far. It was a 20 minute ride out to Stingray City which is a sandbar off the east coast of the island. Our tour guide, David Evans had a pretty good story about his father and his uncle starting this whole stingray tourist thing and his father diving with Jacque Cousteau back in the day. I couldn’t tell if it was BS, but do intend to look up what I can. We arrived at the sandbar, and man, oh man. Stingrays were everywhere, and huge ones, 4-5 foot stingrays. Not those babies you get to pet at the Newport aquarium. The water was crystal clear, and about 3 feet deep between waves. Matthew was in the water in no-time. Maria right behind him. Molly, not so much, and Maggie had no intention of getting in the water.
David and his partner grabbed our group’s stingray. They held it, tamed it if you will and then proceeded to make sure that every family had encounter time with the animal. You could feed them if you wanted. Matthew tried but got a little scared.
They feel like velvet, super smooth, and provided you don’t step on one and make it angry completely safe.
Certainly a highlight of our trip.
After swimming with the rays, they moved us to an area called the Aquarium for snorkeling. The water was equally clear and about 8-10 feet deep. We didn’t have gear, and there wasn’t enough gear on the boat to go around. Matthew and I grabbed life vests and got in the water but since he couldn’t see, nor touch bottom he lost interest quickly. He was also very tired from the previous 45 minutes in the water.
Claudine, Maggie, Molly, and Maria stayed on the boat during the snorkeling. All was fine until we started to leave. One of the boats two engines wouldn’t start and we were already running late. We putted our way back into the harbor, and the driver made the mad-dash back to the port. We were told that the last tender would leave promptly at 3pm. We got back to the port at 2:45 and the line for the tenders was already crazy long. We got in it, and it quickly became clear that we weren’t the only ones late. The line behind us continued to grow. I bet the last person wasn’t onboard until well after 4:30.
The rest of the day was casual, playing putt-putt and just enjoying the cruise.
On Wednesday we had pre-booked a personal tour guide to Cozumel. Claudine got the contact info for Gerry, from Cruise Critic and Travel advisor. I highly recommend using him for your day in Cozumel.
We pre-booked him, and his van for 3 hours (minimum) but knew we’d have him for at least 5 hours. He picked us up at the pier as promised and began telling us about thing things we could do/see on the Island. Claudine and I have been to Cozumel before, both on our honeymoon and the cruise in 2011 where we rented the scooter of death and rode around the island.
The first thing we needed was something to drink, it was hot 90 degrees and humid. Gerry took us to a small grocery store and secured for us, 6 large bottles of water and ice for a whopping $3.00. He could have easily told us to buy drinks from a vendor at the pier but didn’t. While Gerry was in the store he showed us a park to walk around in that contained an underground river. One that’s used for scuba training. Honestly the park was pretty hokey and full of fake animals. But we did see some turtles, and Gerry pointed out an Iguana. Matthew enjoyed it.
Our first stop on the Gerry tour was the KAOKAO Chocolate factory. I personally expected a bigger factory type tour and was very pleasantly surprised. KAOKAO is a small private, family chocolatier. Joshua spent 45 minutes in a very Discovery Channel like demonstration on the history of chocolate and the work required to get flavor from the beans. We made our own Cocoa. Everyone was entertained and the chocolate is delicious. This is a must-do, if you have time in Cozumel. You won’t be disappointed. It’s not free, adults were $10 and kids were $5, Matthew of course was free. We spent about $70 t0tal including the chocolate that we bought. I would do this again in a minute, or at least stop and buy chocolate.
After this tour Gerry offered up the Tequila factory tour, 4 wheelers, and the zip line. I could see where this was going, every time we stopped we’d be shelling out another $100 for a family activity. This isn’t quite what we had in mind. We wanted a leisurely day, seeing stuff but really didn’t want to hit up $10 per person activities. Gerry was cool with that and didn’t push anything, we started heading for the Tequila factory and passed the Zip line on the way. After determining that the Tequila tour was just a dog and pony show put on by a manufacturer and that unlike the chocolate factory they didn’t actually make it there we decided to pass on that. We asked him to circle back to the Zip line because the kids were excited about that opportunity.
The Zip-line was at Ecoparque Cuzam, where you can do a number of things including the zip-line, horseback riding, drinking, ATV’s, swimming and paintball. We were really only interested in the Zip-line. We met the owner and negotiated a rate, and off we went. The guys really took care of the kids, and it was fun and entertaining. A little pricier than I planned on, but we had a blast. I know the kids would do it again.
From the zip-line we headed across the Island for lunch at Playa Bonita. It was supposed to be better and more economical than Coconuts. It was good, great view, service was a little suspect. My food was excellent but the girls weren’t really happy. If we had it to do over again we would do Coconuts instead. It was interesting to learn that there is no electricity on the east side of the island. Everything, including the restaurants are run off generators, and that’s always been the case.
After lunch we stopped at the beach for a little bit so the kids could climb on the rocks, Matthew could throw rocks, and the girls could look for beach
Gerry really took care of us. We’ll certainly use him again. If you’re ever headed to Cozumel look him up. Email Eduardo: email@example.com or call Gerry: (987) 869-0044 Please tell them the Disher Family referred you.
After all of that we were beat, and had Gerry drop us off at the pier. I brought Matthew back on the ship and the girls did a little shopping.
Thursday, our final port day was a short one. We docked in Costa Maya at 0700 and were leaving at 3pm. I wasn’t comfortable taking the family on any Jungle tours. It was questionable that we could rent anything that would hold 6 of us, and I wasn’t about to shell out big bucks for a 2 hour ride into the jungle on a non air-conditioned school bus to spend 20 minutes at the ruins turn around and come back. Instead we opted for a beach day. Claudine did her homework and got us reservations at Tropicante.
The place is the perfect Caribbean beach dive. Food and drinks were good, everything was reasonable, the beach was perfect. Massages on the beach, 1 hour for $25, you can’t beat that. No cover charge, our bill for the day with 3 “on the beach” massages was $160.00
We hung out, Matthew only left the ocean to eat.
The place is run by an American (Steve) that moved there to open his spot 5 years ago. Contact them and make reservations if you ever find yourself in Costa Maya. He can also handle all your arrangements for scuba, snorkeling, ruin tours, you name it. If we had more time we would have used him for other adventures.
We were back on the boat by 2:30pm, again I took Matthew and Maggie and left Claudine and the other girls to shop. It was the 2nd of the two formal nights, and I got to suffer in socks too small for the benefit of my family. But mostly my wife who wanted more pictures.
Friday our final day on the cruise ship was spent recovering from the previous days activities.
We have really enjoyed the ‘Freedom’ class ships. Our next cruise will be on either the Allure or the Oasis, we may then try a smaller ship but freely admit we’ve been spoiled by the larger ships.
Our final cruise day was non-eventful, it was hella-windy and chilly on deck. So we didn’t get to swim but we found other things to do, like 72 holes of putt-putt with the girls.
All of the photos can be found here: [on Picasaweb]