Although having travelled extensively, going on cruises haven’t previously been my ‘Go To’ method of exploring an area, mostly because I like to really experience a culture hands on and for me that includes waking up in it, walking around it all day, and eating and breathing whatever local area I am in to really get a good feel for it.
Recently, myself and my partner had an itinerary gap of about a week in a 3 week trip. We had very clear requirements of weeks 2 and 3 (attend a wedding in New York City and then coastline drive from San Francisco back to LA before flying home from there).
However, Week 1 was a bit of a loose end for us. So we were workshopping a whole variety of ideas. We wanted to do a sailing trip or a kitesurfing trip (learning to sail is one of our current projects) but sadly, the winds were low at that time of year. We threw around Miami as an option, but having been there recently and it being a very similar place to our home town, it didn’t seem too logical. We had pretty much ticked off the mainland places we wanted to in South West USA, so were heavily focused on water based options. We considered the Bahamas, the Caribbean, the Virgin Islands… but we didn’t want to lose massive amounts of time in transit either. This was probably the first time that we didn’t have a really clear place that we wanted to go, and so we decided to have a look at the options Royal Caribbean Cruises had to offer.
We decided to use it as an opportunity to check out a few places that hadn’t been on our radar to visit, as a bit of a test and learn experience. So we could drop in for the day, have a look around and work out if it is an area we would want to go back to for a longer time.
I had previously considered cruises a bit sterile, somewhat limited in terms of the genuine opportunity they give to feel the culture of where you are going due to the industry that is set up around them. I remember being on the Isle of Capri and having a boat load of cruise guests descend upon the island. Quaint streets filled with locals turned into the loud cacophony of tourists working out how much they could fit in before their 4pm boarding time. I shudder at the memory.
I remember wondering at the time how genuinely are you really seeing a place when 2000 of the people in it have just got off the same boat as you? And when there are a 100 local vendors in your face as soon as you step off the boat? So this was the question that I was looking to answer, and to understand what impact that did have on our experience of a place. When I visit somewhere, making a genuine contribution to the local economy in a manner as sustainable as I can manage is important to me and I wanted to test if this was achievable as well.
We chose the 7 night Western Caribbean Cruise departing from Orlando, with ports at Roatan, Honduras; Cozumel, Mexico; Puerto Costa Maya, Mexico and George Town, Grand Cayman. None of those locations had been on my radar to visit, and at each location we had the day to explore. We had options to pre-organise day trips at each location (referred to as Royal Caribbean Shore Excursions), you could get off the boat and organise your own DIY adventure, or you could remain on the boat.
Our adventures in port included swimming with stingrays & snorkelling in Grand Cayman (arranged via Royal Caribbean), hiring a jeep in Cozumel and doing our own road trip, going on a dune buggy adventure in Puerto Costo Maya (organised in port), and renting a scooter in Roatan where we went on an adventure to see local towns and communities, and did some snorkelling at a local beach and ate fresh seafood while drinking rum punch.
Each of these were really great and particularly the ones where we went our own way we are able to get a bit more of the local flavour, and we had a much stronger sense of the local vibe doing things this way. Doing 2 arranged trips and 2 of our own gave us a nice blend of all of the options. We did particularly enjoy when we were driving ourselves around to be able to pull in and stop anywhere we felt like – the downside to this was taking it easy on the local beers! And there is something to be said for not really having to think too much on a holiday which is where the arranged trips can come in handy also.
Overall, we would happily take a Royal Caribbean cruise again. I think it is great for people who may not have particular places they want to see but just want to visit new places, great for big groups travelling together, and is very genuinely something that people of all ages can make work for them.
Highlights of a cruise:
•Great way to get a taste test of a place – do you enjoy it enough to go back?
•Variety of food options. Seriously, there was a lot of food. Plenty of options and great quality (especially considering the number of people they are cooking for)!
•Plenty of entertainment for the big kids (bars, gyms, rock climbing, FlowRider stand up surfing, nighttime shows, nightclubs, on deck dance parties).
•Entertainment for the actual kids (organised activities, movies, ice skating, etc, depending on your ship). To be clear, we weren’t travelling with kids so I didn’t pay this element a lot of attention but I could see that the kids around us were having a pretty great time!
•A real variety of non sporting/physical options on board – both free and paid. Everything from poker to cocktail making, shopping to trivia, there was absolutely something for everyone.
•Hotel on a ship – the convenience of waking up in a new location without having to pack and unpack was a huge bonus! To be able to look out your window in the morning and be pulling up to a new destination was pretty great.
The Not So Great parts:
•Sea sickness – ocean sailing is not for everyone. If you suffer from this or think you may, pack some sea sickness tablets.
•By the end of the week you tend to see the same people everywhere…. and they may not be the people you want to see!
•There is no getting around the fact that a large cruise ship is going to have thousands of other people on it, which, naturally has it’s drawbacks. The workaround here is all in the scheduling. Work out the things you want to do the most, and get there early enough to make sure you don’t miss it.