We decided to take the cruise on the Freedom as we have been to all of the more-visited islands, but we have not been to CocoCay since 2000, and we thought it might be nice to return. This was the first time we booked a balcony, as we had always wanted to try it. For this cruise, we have achieved Crown & Anchor Platinum status, which gave us priority check-in and boarding (right after C&A Diamond and suite guests).
Again, since we are retired, and we are not in a rush to get anywhere, and wanted to visit our youngest son for a few days, we drove to Central Florida. Unfortuanately, I-40 between Knoxville, Tn and Asheville, NC was blocked by a landslide and the highway was closed for several months. So we had to take an alternate route which added about 70 miles to the already long 1,200 mi trip to Florida. But again, we were in no rush, and took the opportunity to do some sight-seeing. We visited the Mighty 8th Air Force museum in Pooler, Ga, as well as the Warbird Museum in Titusville, Fl.
And since we were from Michigan, we had planned on going to Lakeland, Fl one day and watch the Detroit Tigers in Spring Training. However, yep it rained like crazy that day, so we took a trip to Ocala, Fl and visited the Don Garlits Drag Racing Museum.
Just before this cruise, I upgraded my DSLR to a Nikon D-90, as well as my Point & Shoot to a Nikon S560.
Departure. The day before our departure, we drove over to Cocoa Beach and stayed at the Hampton Inn. This was a nice hotel and I highly recommend it. The hotel is designed so that all of the rooms have beach views from their balconies. The hotel also offers a Park-And-Cruise package. For about $35 for each person, you can park your car on the hotel's premises and a shuttle will transport you to the cruise port and back. At $14 per night for cruise port parking, it was a bargain to park at the hotel.
When it was time to head for the ship, around 11AM, a shuttle picked us up. They dropped hotel passengers off at the Disney and Carnival terminals, and then our ship as we were the furthest from the port entrance. We had priority check-in as we were finally Platinum level in Royal Caribbean's Crown & Anchor society. Beginning with Platinum, and continuing through the higher levels (Emerald, Diamond, Diamond Plus, Pinnacle, and Suite guests), you get a few additional perks. Not a big deal, but it's nice to have Priority check-in. While we didn't have the highest priority, it still meant that we got to check-in before probably 80% of the other guests; had a shorter line for registering, and a designated seating area to wait for boarding. And when boarding began, we went first.
This was the first time we booked a balcony, and while it was nice, Florida can get cold in the winter, and for the first two days at sea, it was almost too cold to use the balcony. But by the time we got to St. Thomas, we were deep into the Caribbean and it was warm enough to enjoy it. While balcony cabins typically have more room, I am not sure if they justify the additional expense over an inside cabin.
CocoCay. The primary reason we booked this cruise was to re-visit Coco Cay, which unfortunately didn't happen. We could not tender due to safety concerns as the waves were rather rough that day. So we got a head start to our next port-of-call, St. Thomas. The ironic thing is most of our previous cruises have been in prime hurricane season (Sep and Oct), and while we have had hurricanes in the Caribbean during our cruise, we have never had to change our itinereary or miss a port. But in the relative calm of March, we skipped Coco Cay. I suppose that is how luck works.
St. Thomas. At St. Thomas, the reversing ring saga continues. We had purchased this ring in 2005 the last time we were here. In the mean time, my wife lost a stone in the diamond side of the ring. We obtained a couple of estimates at local jewelry stores of $200 or more to repair it.
I contacted Cardow via email prior to leaving and they said the ring would still be under warranty if we wanted to mail it in and proof-of-purchase. We decided that since we would be in St. Thomas on this cruise, we would drop by when we were in port.
After reaching port, we had a few minutes prior to our excursion, so we went back to Cardow Jewelers. They were so nice, they had a technician on staff, we dropped the ring off, went on our excursion, and when we returned, the diamond had been replaced at no charge. We were so greatful that we bought a 3rd band attachment for the original ring.
Our excursion this time was Coral World at Coki Point. It was a busy place, with passengers from Royal Caribbean, Carnaval, and Disney at the site. The excursion consisted of a two-part event. First we went to Coral World proper and looked at all of the animals and fish on display. The second part consisted of a ride in a semi-submersible.
Getting to Coral World takes a route that goes through a rather rough area of the island, located adjacent to the facility. I remember seeing concertina wire atop the fences of several buildings in the area. We learned that a few months after our visit that there was a gang-related shootout in that area, and a child from a Carnival cruise, an innocent bystander, was struck and killed by a stray bullet. Since then, some of the cruise lines have scratched Coral World from their excursions, but that may have been temporary.
St. Maarten. This was our third visit to St. Maarten, which continues to be our favorite island. This time we decided to do a bit of exploration on our own, and just walked around the cruise port and adjacent town for awhile.
Since the Oasis and Allure have made St. Maarten a port-of-call, the cruise port has undergone quite a change. A second pier has been constructed, and on this visit, the port area was undergoing a major upgrade, with new shops and other areas. We're scheduled to return in Oct 2011, so it will be nice to see what has been added.
Arrival. While on board, we booked a future cruise on the Allure for Jan 2011, and also booked a cruise on the Monarch to begin the next week. While the Monarch is only a 4 day cruise, it also leaves from Port Canaveral, and goes back to Coco Cay. Since we missed it this trip, and since we drove to Florida, we figured as long as we are there...
On the return trip, there was a medical emergency on board. At the time we were about 50 miles north of Nassau, Bahamas, and we were able to witness an emergency helicopter evacuation by the US Coast Guard. Apparently they flew in from Florida to Nassau, refueled, then flew out to the ship and landed. Although we never did hear about the injury or outcome of the passenger's condition, watching the helicopter land on the ship was quite an event.
Tip #18. Always buy cruise insurance. It's cheap, less than $10 per day, and a medivac can cost $20K or more.
Port Canaveral offers express departure if you want to take all of your bags. Not all ports do; it's usually up to the US Customs for some reason. If you partake express departure, you can get off first. Even though we were Platinum and would get priority departure, express departure would allow us to leave even earlier. We had a lot to do this day; find a hotel, do laundry, repack our bags, and print out our cruise documents before our departure on the Monarch the next day.
Tip #19. If you are offered express departure, consider doing so.
Tip #20. If you live out of state, getting to the cruise port can be expensive, so consider back-to-back cruises to offset travel costs.
After departing the ship, our hotel shuttle arrived within just a few minutes and we were on our way back to the hotel and our car.