by Susan Hofer
February 2, 2008
We were booked on the Grand Princess to leave 2/2/08 from Ft. Lauderdale for a one week Western Caribbean cruise traveling with our adult children and their spouse or significant other. The plan was to leave Chicago on Friday, 2/1/08 and stay overnight one night pre-cruise to allow for any weather delays. This proved to be prophetic as it started snowing on Thursday and continued for 24 hours, dumping about a foot of snow in Chicago, causing cancellations of 600 flights on Thursday at O'Hare and continuing on Friday. Lucky for us, we were flying United which has its hub in Chicago and we not only had an aircraft at our gate but our flight was on time. The "kids" were taking public transportation from the city while we arranged a taxi from the suburbs. They actually beat us to the gate while we barely had time to check our luggage before the 25 minute cut off time. The anxiety over the weather overshadowed everything else on our minds with us getting up several times during the night to check the snowfall and/or the Weather Channel.
As we finally winged our way to Ft. Lauderdale with great relief, something my son had said about his passport stamps triggered something in my mind. I turned to my husband and asked if he had brought the passports as they had been sitting on his dresser. The horrified look that he gave me confirmed my fears. We weren't going to land for another 2 hours and had no way to contact anyone for that time. We frantically discussed this with the kids trying to come up with some solution.
The girl sitting next to me overheard our conversation and suggested that we have someone go to the house and FEDEX them to us. The problem was that anyone who had a key to the house was sitting on the plane with us. She suggested that we could get a friend to have a locksmith meet them at our house to open the door, retrieve the passports and then send them to us at the hotel where we were staying the night. This sounded like a good idea to me but DH felt that there was too many parts to this plan that could go wrong and his plan was to fly immediately back to Chicago and come back the next day.
As soon as we landed, we called Donna, our trusty travel agent for advice and she called Princess to confirm that we absolutely needed passports or a certified copy of your birth certificate to be allowed to board the ship. She suggested a national database here in the States which would send you a certified copy of your birth certificate overnight. The fly in the ointment for that idea was that hubby was not born in the USA. We asked her to start checking flights from Ft. Lauderdale when I mentioned the locksmith idea. She became very excited and said that she had a good friend who was a locksmith and she would call him and ask if he would do this for her.
While we went down to baggage claim, we also talked to the Princess rep who met us for the bus transfer to the hotel and told her that DH might not be coming with us. Donna called back and said that while the locksmith would open the house, he would not go in it because of the liability involved with his license. His best friend however was Donna's ex-boyfriend and he agreed to go along and get the documents off Karl's dresser and take them to a FEDEX-KINKOS for next day delivery. Donna had also found the closest FEDEX-KINKOS to our house and that they had late pick-up to 7 PM for next day delivery. Since it was only still 1:00 PM, Chicago time, we felt we had a chance for success.
Confident that we had a solution, we boarded the bus to the hotel. Donna called us about 10 minutes later and conferenced us in with the locksmith who was having trouble opening the lock. He said that he had to make a key in order to open the door and did my key have a number on it. It was the original key which did indeed have a number on it and he was able to open the door! Confirming the hotel address with Donna and the exact location of the passports in the house, she said she would call us later to confirm that the package was on the way. We were just pulling up to the hotel when she did call and said the envelope would be delivered by noon, guaranteed.
Our son-in-law asked us to get the tracking number and he would check it for us the next day. Donna called us back that evening with it and we all breathed a sigh of relief. We were so grateful to her for going above and beyond for us; we could not thank her enough! You would not get someone to do this for you from an online agency or if you had booked directly with the cruise line. She charged the locksmith fee, about $100 and the FEDEX fee about $44 to our credit card. This was a small price to pay for our stupidity. There was no charge for all of her trouble organizing this for us.
Check in at the Marriott North which we had booked through Princess was painless and we asked to have rooms together which were no problem for the efficient clerk who checked us in. I also asked about receiving a package the next day and was reassured that FEDEX definitely stopped there. Our rooms were comfortable and clean, typical Marriott decor which we are familiar with, being Marriott Reward Members. Everything was prepaid, except for any meals or drinks we might have while being there. The hotel had an adjoining nature preserve which was used by guests to wander through. We had wanted to find a grocery or liquor store where we could purchase some wine and vodka to take with us on the ship. There wasn't any within walking distance.
The hotel restaurant was between meals so we all met in the bar for a drink and decided to walk across Andrews Ave. to the small mall for dinner. There was a multiplex there plus several chain restaurants, Chammps, Longhorn, Hooters, Sweet Tomatoes, Dunkin Donuts, some Italian place and probably a couple of others I don't remember. We voted for Chammps and were very pleased with the menu and the large portion sizes which none of us could finish. After only an airport breakfast and all the subsequent anxiety, we were finally hungry enough to eat. It was still only about 6:00 PM but after wandering around the mall, no one really wanted to see a movie so we all decided to head back to our rooms to watch TV and crash.
The next day before breakfast, Jeremy checked the tracking number and said the envelope was currently in Pompano Beach which was the next town away. We went in for breakfast buffet anticipating that it would be there shortly. By eleven it was still not there and I asked him to check it again and it came up with an "exception." I called 1-800-GOFEDEX and they told me that the address was incorrect! But the package was on the truck and I could pick it up at the facility when the driver came back and don't worry because they were open until 7:00 PM. Small comfort when the ship was sailing @ 5:00! I was beside myself and I'm sure the person on the phone could hear the panic in my voice. She said that they could leave a message for the driver and hope that he would respond while still on his route. They asked for the correct address of the hotel which we provided and all we could do was wait. Karl was berating himself for not flying back to Chicago and taking care of it himself! Too many people involved make mistakes happen!
The hotel had given us a letter telling us to meet downstairs @ 11:30-12:00 for "pre-check-in". We had already placed our luggage outside our rooms at 9 AM for bellman pickup so we sent the kids down for the "pre-check-in" thinking we needed our passports to do this. It was simply passing out and filling out the health form and receiving a colored card indicating which bus you would board. We checked out of our room and anxiously awaited a call back from FEDEX. Unbeknownst to us, Donna had also noticed the incorrect address that morning and was also calling FEDEX.
I tried calling FEDEX again around 12:15 and got the same response, that they would send a message to the driver. I got the address for their depot in case we had to go there and retrieve it ourselves. In the meantime, we pulled our luggage out of the Princess pile so it wouldn't get on the ship without us and waited while the Holland America reps boarded about 12 buses for their cruise. We discussed our problem with the hotel manager and he assured us that the FEDEX depot was only 10 minutes away and most Saturday deliveries were over by 1:00 so we should have no problem getting there to get our package and making it to the ship on time. He even said that he would arrange for a Lincoln Town car for us that would be the same cost as a cab and would wait for us. So we had an alternate plan to pin our hopes on. Meanwhile, DH was waiting outside looking for any FEDEX truck that came by so he could throw his body into its path just in case it was the one with our passports. The kids were wondering if after all this planning for a family vacation, the parents wouldn't make it.
Karl had me call again @ 12:50 and the FEDEX person noticed a message that said that the driver would be there in 15 minutes! As soon as I hung up, Donna was calling us with the same news. She was feeling responsible since it was her friend who had put down the wrong address! They all raced outside waiting for the FEDEX truck to make an appearance while our daughter stayed with me calming my frazzled nerves. A few minutes later, FEDEX pulled up and Karl ran to him to claim our envelope. The driver questioned him because our name was spelled incorrectly but DH pulled out his driver's license to prove it was him and then tipped the guy.
And yes, inside were the passports, the bill for the locksmith and the key he had made to get into the house. Princess was still boarding buses and had not yet called our color. Our luggage went back into the pile and we were finally on our way! Had we ever discussed our passports before leaving? Yes, a few days earlier I had asked where they were thinking that if they were in the bank vault, I would have to go get them. But DH had assured me that they were on his dresser. And we then promptly forgot about them with all the anxiety over the weather.
On the bus ride to the pier, I kept touching the passports to reassure myself that they were really, truly in my possession. I think all of us were thinking about how soon we could have a drink when we were on board to "come down" from all the anxiety of the previous 24 hours. At the Terminal, we saw several ships like the Carnival Liberty, Holland America Westerdam, and RCI's Navigator of the Seas and, of course, the Grand Princess. Our son, David, ever the joker, was saying, "Hey Mom, I thought you said these ships were big?" Our luggage had gone on the bus at the hotel and we never had to see it again until it showed up outside of our rooms. Before we were allowed into the terminal we had to show our Passports (!) and our boarding passes which were scrutinized by name and photo. Our carryons were run through the scanner and we passed through a metal detector before passing further into the building.
There were no long lines and we all walked up to the check in for Aloha deck where we presented our passports, boarding passes and most importantly, our credit cards. Passports were scanned as were the boarding passes and credit cards; we were presented with our room keys and then walked through Security one last time showing our room keys before joining the queue for the boarding photos. Karl & I skipped this but insisted the kids do it as a souvenir if they wished to purchase it later. Right into the lobby where we were directed to the elevators and our floor. Our rooms were amidships and right off the elevator lobby so they were easy to find. I like the Princess touch of posting your names outside your room and having a little clear "mailbox" there also.
Karl & I had been on the Coral Princess the year before for a Panama Canal cruise but this was the first cruise for our family. We brought our daughter Alison, 35 & her hubby Jeremy, 34 and our son David, 29 with his girlfriend Missy, 28. There was some concern on our part that the age demographic would be in the "senior" category but there was a number of families on board with a broad range of ages. One family was having a reunion of about 30 members from all over the USA. After checking out our rooms, we went in search of the buffet for a snack to hold us over until early seating dinner. Here was where we found what we considered a major flaw of this ship; there was no central staircase for the passengers to use. Although we were one deck below the Lido deck, we had to go from the middle of the ship to the end each and every time we wanted to go up one deck. Or take the elevators which was a waste of time.
After lunch, David & Missy took off for some exploring on their own while the rest of us relaxed for a few moments. Finally being on the ship, I wanted to savor the experience before rushing off to do something else. But curiosity took over and we started at the top by the Skywalkers night club in the "shopping handle" end of the ship and worked our way down back to the pool deck where we hooked up with David & Missy again for our sail-away drink and bid adieu to Ft. Lauderdale for 7 days. We watched the Holland America ship back its way out of its berth ahead of us and sail down the channel before it was our turn. Leaving the channel we saw the Navigator of the Seas begin their maneuver away from the dock. For most of the cruise, we saw these ships flanking ours on the high seas and at night looking spectacular all lit up against the blackness of the open ocean.
Our luggage had arrived so we could clean up, change clothes and go down for our first dinner with Jorge, our waiter from Mexico and Englebert, our assistant waiter from the Philippines. There had been much discussion among our family about the seating times as the younger generation gets home from work later than we do and are used to a later dining time. I had thought that perhaps we would change to anytime dining after the first night but as it turned out, the ship left most ports by 4:30-5:00 PM and the early dining worked out well as then we all dispersed to our own devices for the rest of the evening. Since I tend to be an "organizer" or as my hubby calls it "bossy," we agreed that since everyone was an adult, they could do what they wanted on the cruise but that we all eat dinner together to share our days. As it happened, we crossed paths most days around lunch by the pool and spent an hour or so recounting their various shore excursions. They never suggested opening the doors between the balconies of our cabins to maintain their privacy. This was a family vacation of 6 adults, not 2 adults and 4 children.
The first sea day was of course, Sunday which happened to be Super Bowl Day. Karl, David & Jeremy all were looking forward to watching it on MUTS but it was very windy on deck as well as a little bouncy. Now Karl & I were never really conscious of the movement, but Alison was feeling rather queasy the first 2-3 days. We all ended up in the Vista Lounge where they showed the game on the big movie screen from an international feed without the commercials. They also did show it on MUTS and in the Snookers sports bar. Karl was disappointed that the casino wasn't taking any action (bets) on the game but not everyone was interested. It was also the first Formal night and we had let Jorge & Englebert know that we wouldn't be in the dining room that night. Princess put out a nice little spread of nachos with guacamole & salsa, pizza and little hot dogs wrapped in dough guaranteed to make you thirsty! The bar waiters were really hustling to fill the drink and the buckets of beer orders. Some passengers went up to the buffet at halftime for something a little more substantial but we all filled up on the junk food and the guys filled up on the beer too. I saw quite a few people dressed up which made sense since only about 400 or so were watching the game out of 2600 on the ship. Not being a big football fan if my BEARS aren't in the contest, I spent the third quarter in the casino before coming back to see the conclusion and the most exciting part of the game. By the time it was over, everyone was pretty loopy from the food and drink and the kids had early shore excursions the next morning in Ochos Rios, so we all headed to bed.
We were all pretty pleased with the Princess concept of "smart casual" in the dining room for most nights. Karl & I have been on 6 Celebrity cruises and while we like the Formal nights, the "informal" nights requiring the gentlemen to wear a sports coat and the ladies a nicer pantsuit or dress which are a bit much for a 7 day cruise. We have done it on a 14 day Hawaii cruise and believe me, it is a lot of packing. At least on that cruise, Karl rented a tux so he could eliminate the suit and extras. We have paid more than once for overweight bags on the airline and he is not a happy camper about it. Jeremy, David & Karl each brought a suit but we only went to one Formal night so while we went for a formal picture, it was a burden to bring it along.
Monday was our first stop in Ochos Rios and we were at an industrial kind of dock a short distance away from the main dock near all the shops. Princess was running a free shuttle there if you didn't want to walk along the road. Alison & Jeremy had signed up for an excursion of ocean kayaking and Dunn's River Falls. David & Missy were going to be more laid back and check out the area if there was anything they wanted to see or buy. Karl & I headed up to the very empty (by 9 AM) gym area to work the treadmills and watch CNN. This was the only stop where we had some rain. A few brief, if intense showers occurred and the sun was out by the time we pulled away from the dock. We ran into David & Missy by the pool and had a grill lunch with them. By the time they were ready to leave, Alison & Jeremy came by so we held the table for them so they could get some lunch. They found sushi in the buffet and were delighted to have this option. I should mention that they took photos of all their dinner food with their digital cameras because they were so impressed with the presentation and selection. This was crab leg night and we were all very impressed with this entree.
Tuesday was Grand Cayman and again the "oldsters" stayed on the ship having been there 4 times already. The "young-un's" actually signed up for the same bus excursion to Hell and other points of interest. They were very on top of things, reading their Princess Patter and knowing to purchase stamps for postcards from Hell prior to leaving the ship. They did point out that they were the youngest ones on this excursion which involved minimal walking. They thought that they wanted to have a day to sleep in and not have to be off the ship every day @ 8 AM for an active excursion. Our weather was great, in the 80's & sunny and once we got past Cuba, the oceans were calm and the ship without any noticeable vibration. By this day, Alison had her sea-legs and was feeling pretty good. This is a night we should have gone to one of the specialty restaurants since it was Caribbean night and the choices on the menu were not too good.
Wednesday we tendered into Cozumel as there were 9 ships in port; 2 Carnival, 2 NCL, 1 RCCL, 1 Celebrity, 1 Costa, 1 Holland America & us, the Grand Princess. This was the only port Karl & I agreed to get off and do some shopping. Now I know what a sacrifice this was for him to accompany me as this is a man who will say that he would rather have his teeth drilled without Novocain than go shopping. But I was on a mission to purchase some Mexican vanilla and a Christmas ornament and he actually wanted some cologne. I also ended up with a lovely silver bangle bracelet courtesy of my husband. A word of caution about the vanilla. Don't buy it in the first store you see. This is what I did and I got the jumbo size for a very reasonable price. The bottle was the approximate size and shape & weight of a bottle of Amaretto. Only after we were hauling it around did I start to think about how I was going to get it home. Too big to carry on by far and pretty heavy to put in a tight suitcase. I had brought several sheets of bubble wrap and some larger plastic bags in anticipation of us being able to buy some liquor prior to boarding the ship, but that hadn't worked out. Lucky for us, our new suitcase had a built in scale and we made it under the allowed 50 lbs. Back on the ship after our shopping and it was time to relax in the hot tub once again.
Thursday was our final sea day and the last Formal night. Karl & I splurged on the Ultimate Balcony Breakfast and for $32 plus a 15% gratuity, it was a big disappointment. We substituted Eggs Benedict for the smoked salmon and we could have just ordered coffee and sweet rolls from room service and gone up to the buffet for a better selection. The split of champagne that came with it was good quality, Moet & Chandon, and we ended up drinking it in the evening when we came back to our room and sitting on our balcony.
This is one of the things we prefer about Celebrity; the full room service menu for all meals including dinner.
David, Missy & I attended some team trivia, winning 3 sets of Princess Luggage tags and going for the last big day of BINGO. I had had some luck in 2006 on our Hawaii cruise by winning the last game of Bingo for about $3500 which I had to split with another person. Always looking to repeat, I went with them. On the last game, the cover-all card, I was down to 1 NUMBER! The Bingo host stopped the game and said that from now on, if you had one number to stand up. So I did. And I was the only one! Unfortunately, he never did call the number I needed and about 4 people ended up splitting the prize. David & Missy were beside themselves with excitement and then disappointment. We headed back to the room to finish getting ready for dinner and our formal family portrait. Most of us ordered the lobster but Missy & Jeremy who are from the East, elected to have the Beef Wellington. They might have had the right idea since the lobster was so small as to be minute and was served w/2 prawns as well. I think they must save the big Lobster tails for the people who pay the $100 premium for the Ultimate Balcony Dinner.
We only saw 2 shows, since the production shows were identical to the ones we had seen on Coral Princess the previous year. A comedy duo juggling act who we recognized from having seen them on the Horizon many years ago and Al Katz, the comedian who was moderately funny. Most evenings we played Blackjack or 3 card Poker in the casino and managed not to lose too much. I think I only lost $200 for the whole week.
Friday, our last day, came too quickly and we prepared to tender off the ship @ Princess Cays. We had pre-booked beach cabanas and snorkeling equipment. I am glad I had read the info about the beach on these cruise boards. The sand was very thick but very soft and actually hard to walk through. The ocean floor however, was filled with rocks covered with seaweed and most people without surf shoes were not venturing out very far. I had pointed this out to the kids before we left, insisting that they get some beach shoes and they were glad that they did. The snorkeling was good, especially with the fish food supplied with the equipment in the deluxe package. The fish just swarmed all around you. The whole area was very clean, well maintained and the buffet was handled well. I don't know if it was because it was winter, but we did not see any bugs or flies around which you would expect with food and open garbage. The bathrooms were very clean and the only complaint was that the faucets to rinse off your feet were in the middle of the sand! I hated to think how much sand we were all bringing back on the ship. I imagine that the vacuum cleaners were going all night cleaning it up. We took off our surf shoes and bathing suits in the shower to try to minimize how much we were tracking into the room. This was the only day we got some sun which was evident when we took off our suits. We all took showers and naps before dinner. Too much fresh air and water!
Dinner was American night and they featured Prime Rib which was very good and of course, Baked Alaska. David had eschewed the other desserts all week for cheesecake and he did the same this night also. I had wondered how Missy would do with the menu every night since she is a very picky eater, but she found something she liked each night and loved the dessert soufflés, as did I. Alas, dinner was over too soon and Karl & I hit the casino one more time to pay homage to Lady Luck but she did not return the favor, so we literally packed it in and got our stuff outside the door for pickup.
We had an early flight @ 11:10 AM and I was wondering how rushed we would be, but we all gathered in the Vista Lounge by 7:30 and we walked off the ship @ 8:30 right onto the bus for Ft. Lauderdale airport and of course the 10 minute ride there. Our plane was on time and we were deplaning @ O'Hare @ 1:00 Chicago time. Our sweet week and our family vacation was at an end. David was staying at the airport as he had an afternoon flight to London as part of a band tour to Europe for the next 9 days. The rest of us all hugged and kissed goodbye and agreed to meet up at someone's house when David got home to share photos. It was very hard to come back to the very cold temps and blowing snow of Chicago after the beautiful temps and sunshine of the Caribbean. The next day, the temps plunged below zero and we were back to reality.