Since this was September and prime hurricane season, as the weather forecasters projected Isabel was going to move right through our path I was very sorry I did not buy the trip insurance. I also purchased almost every over-the-counter anti-seasickness medication I could find. I wasn't nauseous once. There was only one night when I thought the ship was moving (that was also the night I had the most to drink - hmm coincidence?)
Flight, Embarkation and Sail Away
We flew from the NY area to Miami with no problems. We arrived at about 9 am and decided to have an adventure. Instead of paying $22 per person for RCCI's transportation to the ship, we opted to pay $0.50 and take the local public bus. It would have been OK, if the driver fulfilled his promise to tell us where to get off. (You should get off by the Justice Complex and walk to the "tourist" shuttle which takes you to the pier for another $1.) He didn't tell us and we had to walk 3 blocks in the heat with all of our stuff. The adventure continued because the shuttle driver was new and she dropped us off at the business office not at the ship. We could have waited about a half hour for the next shuttle but Bobby was in a hurry to get there so we walked again, through a serpentine course under the Key Biscayne Bridge. Thank heavens we had luggage with wheels. The stevedores were great - they walked an extra ½ block to relieve us of our stuff when they saw us coming.
We had to wait a few minutes in the embarkation area because we were very early and they weren't ready to board yet. It really wasn't a problem. Many of our fellow passengers didn't follow directions or have their documents ready. We did, so we moved quickly and smoothly through the lines. Tip: fill everything out on-line, rip it out of the book they mail you and have it in your hands. Inside the terminal there were cookies and lemonade while you were waiting. I was thrilled - we were parched and hungry after our unexpected walks. We ended up being about the 3rd or 4th people on the ship who weren't members of the crown and anchor society, RCCI's frequent cruiser program. Walking around on deck having the whole ship to ourselves was phenomenal. We took some wonderful pictures of Miami and enjoyed some silence before the Sail Away festivities began.
As we unpacked and settled in, I realized I had forgotten some things. We actually disembarked and walked back into town. There's an open air mall and some other downtown shops about 1 mile away from the pier. Taxis are available; we took one back for about $5. Getting back on was a breeze because we had our sea passes and could skip most of the lines.
Muster was more organized and less scary than I anticipated. I just didn't want to think about the possibility that the ship would sink. The crew simply explained that unlike an airplane crash, it is possible to survive a disaster at sea. All you have to do is put on your life jacket and follow directions. We did meet a couple at muster on their 26th cruise.
The Sail Away party was a bit hokey for my tastes. I do not like public participation activities, but the mood was festive, the weather spectacular and the vacation had begun. Be aware that you are being video taped and may be subjected to watching yourself on a big screen the last night. Your fellow passengers can also buy a copy of this tape for their future viewing pleasure.
We tipped our bartender at the aft bar $10 when we got our first round. He remembered our names and favorite drinks for the rest of the trip! The aft bar on the pool deck is nothing to look at; you can't sit there but it is much less crowded than the congested main bar near the Windjammer Café and the service is faster than waiting for a waiter.
We opted for the ocean view room and enjoyed our partially obstructed view. The obstruction was that we could see the bottoms of the life rafts. The cabin was small but well designed and actually bigger than I expected. The bed was comfortable and there was enough storage space for everything. The temperature was always perfect - not too hot and not too cold.
The bathroom was very tiny and I still wonder how larger passengers fit in the shower. If you are looking for "fun in the shower" with your cabin mate - give that idea up now. There's not enough room to change your own mind in there.
We were on deck 8 which was convenient to everything. We managed to keep the inevitable weight gain to a modest 5 lbs by always taking the stairs but there never seemed to be much of a wait for elevators except when departing or returning from excursions. Even then, if you walked down a hall to a different bank it was OK,
We didn't spend much time awake in the cabin so I doubt that I would ever opt for something larger unless I was traveling with more people; I could not imagine having more that 2 people in there.
I was glad a brought a clothes steamer to get out some wrinkles. Bobby sent his tuxedo shirt out for pressing; that bill was $2.
My favorite was the towel animals the cabin steward made every night. I loved coming back to see what surprise awaited us. Somehow the origami style towel animals were always wearing my sunglasses.
We opted for the late dinner seating so as not to miss the sunsets and to avoid passengers with children. Sean our waiter was marvelous and Wilma, the head waitress, was one of the most vivacious people I have ever met. We were at a table for 6 but one couple never showed up. Our table mates worked in the travel industry for an airline and were lovely dinner companions.
The food was good. It wasn't fantastic but it was enjoyable. One night when nothing on the menu appealed to me, Sean suggested I order the same thing I'd enjoyed the night before as they still had a few steaks left. He explained that chef will make you something to order if the ingredients are available.
We primarily ate breakfast and lunch in the Windjammer Café. Breakfast buffets are all pretty much alike but everything was hearty and hot. The lines were never too long. If you wanted something lighter, there was always plenty of fresh fruit available. I usually grabbed a piece for later by the pool.
We did eat in the dining room one morning because that was the only place to get eggs benedict. We were seated with a group of Asian tourists who did not speak English. I found the service to be slow and, surprisingly, the portions were small. We did not return to formal breakfast.
The best pre-cruise tip we found was the suggestion to bring a large, insulated mug on board. We'd fill it with water or juice from the fountains and sip that by the pool. It was much cheaper than paying $3.50 per bottle for the Evian the cruise seemed to be hawking at every opportunity. The water from the fountains is safe to drink; I do not know if you can drink the water from the sink in your cabin but I would be more safe than sorry and not brave it.
The poolside midnight buffet was served on formal night. I was disappointed that all of our fellow passengers changed into shorts for the event. We opted to stay dressed.
The other midnight buffet was spectacular to look at. It was hard to believe that everything, including the flowers, was made out of food. We walked though at about 11 pm for the preview and took some pictures. When we came back at 11:45 to eat, the wait was over one hour to get in. Food simply did not interest me that much, so we had a pizza in the sports bar instead.
We loved the Viking Crown Lounge, RCCI's signature 360 degree bar around the smokestacks. The panoramic view is breathtaking. We went up there the first night before dinner to have a quiet glass of champagne and unwind. We met a waitress named Sylvia who was great. She wasn't very busy so she took the time to talk to us and tell us more about the ship. She explained the crew was a bit nervous about hurricane Isabel but that we would have gone to Mexico if she came to the Bahamas.
We only went to the casino once. It always seemed bustling with activity. We played a few slots and went to the champagne bar afterwards.
The library and game room were well stocked and comfortable. The board games were often checked out early.
The rock climbing wall defeated me early on but Bobby climbed it a few times. Each face is a different degree of difficulty. He swears the view from 15 stories above the ocean enhanced by your sense of personal accomplishment is not to be missed. I'll take his word for it.
Every day you are given a compass and itinerary. Bring a highlighter to note what you would like to do. There are so many choices everyday.
On the second day the ship experienced some sort of problem that was never explained to us with one of the pools. It remained drained for the duration of the cruise. Thus, if you wanted to get wet the other pool was crowded. I was a bit concerned about the lack of lifeguards especially since there were little kids and people who had been drinking.
The Captain's Event was kind of boring, but you do get free champagne. The house brand was drinkable. It was also much less of a hard-sell commercial than I thought it was going to be. Exiting the event, we found a photographer set up. One other couple was ahead of us and a passerby took our picture with our camera too. We ended up buying the photograph because it actually came out well. (Anybody who knows me, knows I hate having my picture taken, so this was an accomplishment). Upstairs in the main atrium people were waiting on line for 45 minutes to have their pictures taken.
The on-board shopping offered better bargains that I thought we'd find. The duty free shops were competitively priced with land based stores. They do gouge you on necessities, so pack your toiletry bag carefully.
In Nassau we left the ship without any wait and walked around the main section of town. We bought some trinkets and other souvenirs. We had both been to the Bahamas before and neither of us liked it. It was much cleaner and less seedy than it had been in '91, the last time I was there. You can take public transportation or a taxi to Paradise Island or other public beaches on Grand Bahama. Both are much better values than booking the same trips through the cruise line. We did enjoy watching the crew practice the life boat drill.
Coco Cay, RCCI's private island, was cute. It had a Disney-esque quality. Everything was just a little too perfect and contrived but it was a nice day at the beach. About the only time we waited for anything during the whole cruise was to get on and off the tenders to and from the island. The hammock was comfortable. I wish the waiters selling "coco loco in the sun" had on-off switches. After about 15 minutes of that mantra from every direction it gets old, fast. A menu similar to the lunch buffet aboard ship was available on the island, along with huge containers of fresh, potable water. Again, armed with our trusty insulated mugs there was no need to purchase water. The snorkeling was good. RCCI sunk a boat & a plane for you to go "find". They give you a map and other swimmers tend to congregate by these wrecks. Various life guards throw fish food into the water to cause the fish to swarm around you. In that frenzy one fish bit a mole off some guy's back. It was fairly disconcerting to see him bleeding but he thought it was funny. The current was strong and rough because of Hurricane Isabel so for safety reasons they closed the deep snorkeling reef. Although we brought our own equipment, I was very impressed with the quality and frequency of the safety lectures and the sterilization procedures.
Key West was eye opening. The natives are incredibly liberal and welcome all sorts of alternative lifestyles. Watch out for all the people who rented golf carts to get around & can't drive them well. The town was a bit disappointed; they had been expecting the arrival of an Aircraft Carrier and 5,000 sailors but due to the hurricane the carrier was re-routed to Norfolk to provide disaster relief. They were also waiting for a Harley Motorcycle Event to roll into town. I wasn't looking forward to the mix of those two groups.
There is no ban on public nudity in Key West as long as you are wearing body paint. We were there in the morning and afternoon so things were fairly calm. I do not think I would bring impressionable kids through many parts of town after a certain hour. We had a drink at the Hogs' Breath Saloon because well, you have to. We also went to Irish Kevin's - where as the sign said, "we came, we drank, we don't remember." Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville looked like it would have been fun but we were short on time.
The tour of the Summer White House was educational. As you walk there from the pier, about 3-5 blocks, take a look at the lush and unique foliage.
The highlight of our trip was parasailing with Sebago on Williams Street. Through the cruise you could purchase parasailing excursions at every port. They were charging about $60 pp for a ½ hour boat ride and a 6 minute sail. We paid $75 for 2 people to go on 5 minute boat ride and a ½ hour parasail. Sebago is a member of the Key West Chamber of Commerce. They are fully insured and take safety very seriously. For an extra $10 they will also take digital pictures of you sailing and give you the disk to print out when you get home. There's an Internet Café on the pier right there, with cheaper access fees, if, like us, you didn't bring a lap top but can't wait to see yourself flying through the air. Sebago also made a point of sailing us past the Majesty twice for a birds' eye view of the ship.
The worst thing was a handful of inconsiderate people had to be called to go through customs repeatedly. Nobody could disembark until these slackers finally showed up. Being called once because you overslept is one thing but making 2,500 people wait because you couldn't be bothered was something else all together. I realize the cruise line has no control over this but it's worth mentioning that sometimes you will be inconvenienced by others.
We forgot that our stuff had to be outside the room the last night. As the porter was coming down the hall we were inside furiously packing. He graciously waited, well actually walked back down the hall to get our stuff.
The next morning, we had a leisurely breakfast and disembarked with one of the last groups because our flight home was purposely scheduled for evening. Customs was very quick but we had to wait a few minutes for the luggage. It would have been nice if there had been more places to sit while we waited
As first time cruisers we weren't sure what to do with our luggage all day. We decided to rent a car to explore Miami and lock our stuff in the trunk. Where else could you put all that stuff for $29 and know it was safe? We took the Avis courtesy shuttle back to airport. The driver told us that if we ever cruise again, Avis will drive us to the port for free too if we are renting a car on the way back. She also said that most of the rental car companies will let "club members" use the shuttles even if they aren't renting on that particular trip.
We picked up our rental and the agent went over the map with us. Florida is pretty easy to navigate. We headed south on Route 1 to Crystal Castle. It's this huge place all hand carved out of coral by one guy in the 1920s and 30s. It has a sun dial that is still accurate. There a 9 ton door you can move with one finger and the furniture is surprisingly comfortable. Some people say the place has mystical qualities. I don't know about that but I thought $20 pp for an attraction you can see in about 20 minutes was a bit pricey.
After the Castle we drove north to the Miami zoo and learned the hard way why Floridians don't go to the zoo on 90 degree days with 100% humidity. We had the place to ourselves and were able to listen in on some private zoo keeper tours. It was fairly easy to see all the animals. Every few feet there were misters to cool you, so all in all it was fun. I enjoyed seeing the two baby giraffes who were both under 7 feet tall.
Back at the airport, we were told our flight home was delayed. Isabel had played havoc with the airports along the Northeast Corridor and the airlines were still playing catch up. We were happy to be stranded on that end rather than at home anxious to come down. Instead of grabbing a quick bite, we settled in for a more relaxed meal and had a few more cocktails to wind down our vacation.
This was truly one of the best vacations I have ever been on! There was always something or nothing to do. The best part was it changed everyday and you did not have to plan any of it. You could just let it happen. Despite my generally skeptical nature, by the time I got off the Majesty I was a Crown and Anchor member & had an application for their credit card in my hands. I am looking forward to my next cruise next month.