Tuesday, February 3, 2009

My Newspaper Story on Cruising the Caribbean

I wrote an advice piece for the travel column this week. I don't usually write for this column but after chatting to the editor about our cruise she asked me to write some advice for 1st timers - like herself. She asked if I was serious when I said there was a new international law forbidding the wearing of the Speedo. I assured her it was true. Remember my rule (not in the column). Gentlemen, if you look down and you can't see your Speedo, you should not be wearing a Speedo.

Cruising the Caribbean

Debbie Balzotti
Staff Writer

My husband and I just returned from a sunny Caribbean cruise. There is something very wrong about waking up the next morning, firing up the snow blower, eating a healthy breakfast you prepared yourself and going to work. People politely ask if we had a good time. Of course we did! We minimize it with a bland comment and gloat on the inside.

We are not in the veteran cruiser category which requires booking back-to-back cruises and a minimum annual count of more than 30. One of the couples at our table qualified in this category. These are some of the most important people to befriend on a cruise since they have lots of good advice. I thought it might be helpful to answer some of the questions people often ask me as they prepare for their first cruise.

What to Pack
When we were getting ready for our first cruise almost 20 years ago, my brother-in-law gave us some advice. Peter told us to pack 2 swimsuits so that you would always have a dry one. And? That was it. I have a bit more advice now on packing. We are carry-on bags only folks so I will explain how that works and the rest of you 10 shoe ladies will just have to pay the airlines for your check-in bag. You will also need to tip the porters at the dock $2 per bag and you do have to use them to load bags so be prepared with small bills and a big smile. You will also not see these bags until 8 at night so don’t leave your swimsuit or dinner outfit in there unless you want to wear your travel clothes to the restaurant.

Some cash is important to take, the credit card you want to put tips and room charges on, your passport, a drivers license and your cruise documents. We also make a copy of everything so if passport or license or docs get lost we have a quick reference.

Start packing a week ahead. Lay it out on the bed in the guest room or a table in the basement or your bedroom floor but start early. It is a proven fact (by me and others) that last minute packing equals taking stuff you won’t use and forgetting stuff you really need. There is only one cruise line that has laundry facilities for guests but we have never used it – doing laundry on vacation? Forget it. And I am certainly not going to iron.

Here is a partial list of suggested items to bring. Gallon size Ziploc baggies and flat pack underwear in them. When your bag is randomly selected for public display of underwear in the airport or cruise port it is a little less embarrassing. Really good sunglasses are important because you will use them daily. I found reading sunglasses at a discount store since I have an age induced fine print reading disability. These helped me maintain my fantasy image of youth and coolness. Cruise ships have libraries to check out books for reading on deck, but bring something to read for fun. Call me if you need suggestions. Choose clothing items than can mix and match. Pack T-shirts and 2 pair of shorts, a long sleeved shirt, 2 non-wrinkle (remember the no iron rule) tropical or jersey long skirts that can be dressed up or down depending on the evening meal dress code and flip flops. High heels do not do well on a rolling and pitching sea vessel so deny the entertainment for your fellow passengers and keep to flat shoes (you can get more in that way too). The ship is generally cool so a nice light sweater for evening is a good item to bring.

One thing you must never, never pack is a Speedo. I am sorry but this is a new international cruising rule that you will not read about anywhere else. Trust me, it is a rule. I will admit that I have taken one check-on bag on cruises so that we can take our snorkel gear- and a few extra shoes for me. Just remember that you can rent snorkel gear on the ship and nice pair of sparkly flip flops qualifies for dress shoes on formal night.

Checking In
You will have completed the online check-in and print luggage tags or they can mail them. The porters have tags available but watch them do it and be sure the information is correct. Imagine lost bags with 4,000 passengers on board! Have the documents ready, the bags tagged and then enjoy standing with a couple of hundred fellow passengers in line. Some lines are like Disneyland, and some are more like the library checkout. If you have a boarding time of 2:00 disregard it and get there about 1:00 or even a little earlier. You will be issued a cabin key card the size of a credit card. It is used for leaving and entering the ship at port, and some purchases on board. Dodge the photographers, scurry up the gangway and head to your room. Good luck finding it if you didn’t check a map ahead of time. A GPS would be helpful but there are people posted so be sure to ask directions. Did you read that gentlemen? This is not a road trip although it will feel like it by the time you find your room. Change into cruise wear and head immediately to the buffet restaurant which will be open and waiting. You will now begin to eat the amount you spent on the ticket to get full value for your cruise. It’s a goal -you can do it!

My husband subscribes to the “You snooze you lose” cruising philosophy. I believe in the “I choose to snooze” vacation. He is up at 7 am and headin’ to the full service breakfast in the dining room while I enjoy sleeping in and taking my time instead of rushing anywhere. Believe me I don’t have any problem grazing at the breakfast buffet upstairs a couple hours later.

We choose our cruise by the ports of call. This year we wanted to see St. Maarten and we also stopped at Puerto Rico and Labadee Haiti. Except for the rainy day at Labadee it was perfect temperatures and beautiful sites. In Puerto Rico the first stop is the old fort which is a National Park and then walking around the quaint old part of town. St. Maarten has beautiful Orient Beach and a nice shopping district, and Labadee is a private beach area owned by the cruise line on the end of Haiti with water toys and games. With Mr. “See Everything” we always head down to be ready to disembark first thing and return as late as possible. This is also why choosing the late seating time is very important. It is also the best choice because you can linger over dessert and enjoy your dinner companions without feeling rushed to leave for the next group of diners. If you are worried about being hungry, head up to the always-open buffet for an appetizer – or an entire plate. Remember your goal of eating the price of your ticket?

The shore excursions are rarely worth it. You will pay a high price to be crammed into a bus so skip it and rent a scooter or a jeep right there at the dock. They are always reasonable and a cheap way to recapture your youth, or if you are already young you can drive a little more crazy than at home. Taxi’s are always available and a good tip is to find another couple to share the taxi and find out ahead of time from a ship’s crew member how much it will cost and the best places to visit. The crew is often a great source of information about the ports. Also do some internet research before sailing to avoid disappointments.

Be sure to get back on the ship in plenty of time. They won’t wait for you and you don’t want to be like the one lady that had to be hoisted up by crane with everyone watching because the gangway was closed. True story.

If you are considering a cruise-do it! The entertainment is great, the music is wonderful, the food is fabulous and you can choose to be alone, take family along or make new friends with fellow passengers. It is a great vacation value if you shop early and choose a cruise to suit your travel tastes. Our Royal Caribbean cruise on Liberty of the Seas was a delicious choice in every way.


The Cakes said...

The Mister and I should try this. He really wants to do an Alaskan cruise though. He hates tropical weather. I know, right? He's crazy!

Heather said...

Sounds so fun!! (Totally on board with the speedo rule.) Love your article!