**All pictures are courtesy of I.Haffke. Please click pictures to enlarge for easy viewing.
My original plan to visit Ecuador and Peru over the Thanksgiving holidays fell through and the idea of the cruise bubbled up. After pondering for over the span of 2 weeks, we purchased our cruise and my first. I never thought I’d sign up for a cruise early in my traveling life. I’m an avid fan of bag-packing and thought cruising was for old people looking for convenience and young people looking to have a good time onboard during school breaks. IH was looking forward to boarding the Norwegian Cruise Line's Dawn ship because he saw it being built when he was in his teens. We flew to Orlando from Buffalo on Saturday, a day earlier before the Dawn departed. I was stricken by high temperature on Friday night that lasted for 24 hours, hence, we did not enjoy what Orlando had to offer.
We drove to Tampa port authority and dropped off our luggage at the designated area which was quickly ushered away. After IH deposited our rental car at Tampa airport and we reunited at the cruise terminal, we took a stroll around the area and checked in. There were security and immigration checks prior to entering the ship that took longer than necessary. Once we cleared immigration, everything went really smoothly. We boarded the ship, grabbed a quick buffet lunch and slowly made our way to our stateroom (another fancy name for cabin). To our double-delight, we discovered we had a large room (for disabled) and our luggage was waiting for us! We freshened up and made our way to the emergency station for briefing. I was slightly annoyed to know we were placed the furthest distance possible from the emergency evacuation boats. After the briefing, we went to the top of the ship and bade goodbye to mainland as the ship snaked its way out of Hillsborough bay, then Tampa bay and into the Gulf of Mexico.IH wanted to check out the spa and we were given a tour by a Jamaican hostess (she finally got my name right after day 6th). IH convinced it was a good investment so we signed up. One of the best things we did right since we utilized the spa daily especially when we were on our feet all day touring. We changed for dinner, dined in the Venetian dining room and went to the first show by a Vegas impersonator.
The following day was a cruising day so we spent the day exploring the ship and enjoying the amenities. We were playing chess when I overheard a German family conversing nearby.
IH talked to them and they subsequently became one of the many people we hanged out with over the course of the cruise. We spent most of the day lazing around and planning for our first port stop, Roatan Island, Honduras. Later that evening, we had dinner in the Aqua dining room and saw the ship's in-house performance. We learned one of the dancers hailed from Rochester so we exchanged pleasantries after the show. We went to bed early that night, giddy in anticipation, only to be up most of the night because IH was emptying the contents of his belly at four different occasions. Poor guy, he probably ate something bad (Thai curried dish whilst I had a seafood dish).
Roatan Island, Honduras
As soon as we departed the ship, we were harassed by taxi drivers and tour operators. I was persistent to not fall for the first offering so I dragged poor IH and explored the port. We walked for a good 3 miles and there were many taxis stopped and offered rides. Initially, the drivers refused to meet my request of 50% off but eventually, a driver who came back thrice finally buckled and met our demand.
The port was surrounded by shabby shacks with wandering school children. It reminded me of being at my grandmother's village. The port appeared to be the most developed area and was located a few miles away from the town center. Our first stop was West bay, a popular tourist spot for beach activities. It is located at the southern tip of the island. When we arrived, I was dismayed to see choppy sea waters with zero possibility of entering it without being tossed around by strong waves. Granted it was the rainy season. We made a quick decision to rent a scooter from Captain Van's. A valid driver's license and prior experience were needed to lease. The USD$39 price was fixed, which included all-day scooter rental, helmets and insurance coverage. We stored our snorkeling gear at the rental shop, donned our helmets and scooted away. We rode along the east coast of the island, passing more beach towns and residential areas. As we made a slow climb through the rainforest, the sky opened up and we were drenched instantly, reminiscent of Malaysian monsoon weather. The rain got heavier so we carefully stopped by the roadside and wore our rain ponchos, which were the best things I carried on this trip!
We snaked our way passed Coxen Hole, stopping occasionally for weather breaks. We rode north till we reached French Cay and turned back. The rain slowed down to a drizzle and we continued our way south but took the Carretera Principal road to see the other side of the island. We returned the scooter, purchased souvenirs and met up our taxi driver. Businesses accepted USD and Honduran lempira. However, one must not expect change in USD if you need one. We left a big tip and bade goodbye to our cab driver. That night, we dried our stuff with a hairdryer and quickly checked in the spa to relax our weary and chilled bodies.
Belize City, Belize
Day 4 welcomed us with a promising bright and sunny day. Nevertheless, we realized there was tender service. Tender service occurs when the ship cannot dock at the port thus require smaller boats to usher its passengers to shore. It delayed our plans by an hour. Our plan was to visit a Mayan site and rainforest if possible. After inquiring a number of operators, we went with a guy who spoke decent English. I can't recall the name of the company but it has a green hornbill as its company logo and the operators drive white bus vans. We paid $40 per person for a tour of Belize City, Altun Ha and rainforest. Personally, I thought it was quite expensive but one could argue that it would cost just as much as renting and figuring our way around the area. The city tour was eye-opening. It reminded me of a colonial city, where one could see a blend of local and colonized power's in the city's architectures. Our guide described the history and current events of the city which was interesting because I thought the latter was derived more from his personal views than known facts.
The drive to Altun Ha took approximately 30 miles from the north of the city and the roads were mainly one lane and bumpy. We mingled with the other passengers in the van who hailed from different cruise ships and other parts of the USA. Along the way, our guide pointed out interesting things to see: sun bathing iguanas, Medusa-like trees and natural fences made out of living palm-like trees. We arrived Altun Ha along with other hoards of tourists. Our guide regaled stories pertaining to each structure. Altun Ha was discovered in the 1960s. Initially used as a quarry site, it became a Mayan discovery when villagers found a large jade pendant. It was believed to be a place of worship with villages surrounded it. After climbing and taking customary pictures, our guide led us through a brief walk in the surrounding woods which he dubbed rainforest. He fed us leaves and grass he plucked off the grounds, claiming medicinal and cooking purposes which I highly doubted. He then let us loose for a few moments to peruse the souvenirs.
We took the opportunity to hunt for a bargain on fresh coconuts. I refused to pay $3 and bargained to $1. I was pleased to see IH enjoying his first fresh coconut water and flesh. After an hour or so in the area, we climbed back in the van and headed back to the city.
Our guide dropped us off at the port, a few hours ahead of our ship's departing time. IH and I strolled around the city, weaving in and out of the streets, and snapping pictures of locals minding their daily businesses and children returning from schools. IH bought boiled corn cobs served with salt and lime for snacks, which were rather chewy to my taste but inspiring to my culinary palate. We returned to the ship, exhausted but happy that we had a busy and warm day.
Costa Maya, Mexico
We started the day rather late because there were not many things to do in Costa Maya except water activities. The day promised to be another sunny one so we packed our swimming wear and gears. We inquired around for snorkeling and scuba diving trips and found an operator who offered $100 for discovery scuba and $15 for whole day snorkeling. The chap drove us to a diving shop in his personal van and IH was set up for his first scuba diving lesson. I went off to snorkel along the shore line, which was good because the sun was out, the water was warm and its visibility was high. There was not much corals at sight but I took decent pictures of sea creatures and IH shore diving. An hour later, we headed out to the open Caribbean sea with one dive master and 3 boat people. I was not too happy to see they dove without wet suits. While they scuba dove, I snorkeled on the surface and admired the corals and sea creatures. The underwater sights were wonderful but I lasted about 30 minutes because the surface was rough. We returned to the shore and explored the quiet beach town. We soaked in some sun before we headed back to the ship, glad we had a break to enjoy the water activities.
We started the day early to obtain tender tickets and discovered there were four other cruise ships there. The port looked busy that day because of all the tourists that flooded the town. We got onto the 9am tender boat, which was really the ship's emergency vessel. The waves were rough and it took us a while to anchor and alight the boat. Our ship distributed "free" taxi ride coupons to the forum shops- free only if the taxi drivers drop us at the shops else we would have to pay. We initially wanted to visit Cancun which would require us to take the ferry and bus and set us back 4 hours round trip. We abandoned the plan and explored the town instead.
Cozumel is a popular tourist island so it was no surprised to see it was packed with souvenir shops and operators trying to sell outdoor and entertainment activities. We negotiated for a whole day scooter rental for $20 (original $50 at the port entry). And off we went exploring the island.
It was a breath of relief to escape from the tourist traps. We rode along the coast line, enjoying the views of the Caribbean sea and waving to road cyclists (I learned they trained here). We noted the west side of the island had calmer waters than the south and east coasts of the island. We took a beach break near the Bob Marley Bar before continuing our journey on the opposite side of the island. We wanted to check out the Mayan site on the island but noticed we were running low on time. We dropped off the scooter, bought local souvenirs and waited in the slowest line back to the ship.
Day 6 was our last full day onboard. We met up with our new friends and played games.
Later that evening, we saw a performance and bade goodbye to the crew we had befriended. The next day, we woke up early for immigration and customs checks and checked out. We found our bags easily and picked up our rental car. Since we had some time before our evening flight, we explored downtown Tampa and University of Tampa campus. IH wanted to try wakeboarding so we checked in at Ski McCormick.
It was a neat place where there were two man made lakes installed with rotating cable opened all year round. IH had a private instruction by a Ohioan surfer while I talked to the owner. We returned our sweet Mustang, caught our flight and arrived in the wintry and snowy Buffalo airport.
Overall, I enjoyed the Caribbean cruise. I'd highly recommend the cruise to people who want to enjoy the Caribbean without the hassle of traveling from one city to another. I felt one week on the cruise ship was sufficient. Nevertheless, I think my next cruise will be either be in Alaska or Mediterranean.
Lastly, below are tips on what we did right and wished we did better.
Things IH and I did well:
1. Avoid expensive excursions organized by the cruise
2. Read the ship's daily newsletter
3. Pack light lunches, carry our own water that we filled up on the ship and have heavy breakfast
4. Pack rain ponchos
5. Consider foreign currencies as souvenirs
6. Mail our postcards via the cruise ship
7. Disembark early and return right before the ship leaves
8. Ask for specials prior to the trip
9. Avoid costly drinks
10. Prepare ahead of time for different activities
11. Invest on spa packages
12. Bargain for everything! I understand it's up to 70% discounted if you speak Spanish
13. Make friends with the crew (full credit to IH)
14. Check rental car deals right up to the last minute if you haven't paid for your reservation. We saved $20 for a Mustang
15. Forget exchanging for foreign currencies. They accept USD in all the ports we visited
16. Beware of "free" arranged taxi rides from ship to forum shops. The taxi driver wanted to charge us when we asked if he could stop us at a ferry terminal
Things IH and I could do better:
1. Ask around for excursions before committing to one tour operator
2. Make sure the tour operator follow through his promise
3. Pick an airport that has public transportation to the cruise terminal
4. Pick a port in a city we have not been to
5. Pack what you need and toss out what you don't need. I overpacked
1. Drinks onboard are so expensive so drink up at the ports
2. We did not eat much local food. If you want, you can research online for local food to try
Date Modified: Jan 9, 2013