This was kind of a special cruise for us as both my Wife and eldest Son had birthdays during the cruise. My eldest Son likes to go with us on one cruise a year (we typically take 2 or 3 cruises in total). But my youngest son - after having been on one cruise, really does not care for it.
Again we drove to Florida, and since we like to break up the drive a bit, we decided to visit Patriot's Point in Charleston, SC on the way. The Yorktown Museum was open since it is a private operation, but Ft. Sumter was closed due to the government shutdown. However, we have seen Ft. Sumter before, and there is really not that much to see.
Since we had already been on the Allure, we pretty much knew what to expect - except for my son, who had not been on that ship. This time, we thought we'd do something different, and we booked a boardwalk balcony, so we could see all of the activity on the stern of the ship. We at least booked a room on deck 9, 4 staterooms from the end, so we could get a pretty good view of both the Aqua Theater and the ocean.
As is customary for us, we generally find a hotel room close by the cruise terminal and take advantage of the free parking and shuttle that many hotels offer. This is our sixth cruise out of Ft. Lauderdale, and we have tried parking at the cruise terminal (very expensive), and at our favorite hotel about 6 miles away. While the hotel worked out fine, it takes about 45 minutes to get back and forth (plus up to 45 minutes wait time).
Since our son was with us (and had to get back to work later in the week) we though we'd try something different that could get us out of the area quicker, so we tried Park'N Go. I had been wanting to try them and I am glad I did. They are a great way to park for a cruise. Depending on the season, you can pre-book on-line for a great discount - as little as $5.99 per day (Park'N Go). If you don't take advantage of the internet discount, then the cost is around $12 per day, which is still a few dollars less than at the cruise terminal.
This is now our favorite method of parking, and while a bit more expensive than at the hotel (which is psuedo-free) we typically stayed at, we found a less expensive hotel for this trip, so the cost of the Park'N Go plus the hotel was about what we used to pay for the hotel we obtained shuttle service from.
Arrival. Finding the Park'N Go facility can be tricky, and I ended up missing the turn off, as we came from a direction not included in the instructions on the website. But there are Park'N Go signs all over the area, so it was pretty easy to find a "back way" into the facility.
When we arrived at the parking facility, we were directed to drive under a tent, where attendants helped us unload our luggage from our vehicle to the shuttle van. If the lot is fairly full, they use a valet system to park the car. It appears that cars had to be shuffled around a bit during the week to have ample room for all of the cars. So I had to leave the keys with the car, but it was one less thing to worry about as they took great care of our car.
The Park'N Go facility has many vans, and we noticed that during both departure and pickup from the terminal, they were lined up so as to have minimal wait time. We had to wait no more than seconds for both drop-off at the cruise terminal and pick-up. Contrast that with the up to 45 minute wait time for the hotel, and we made the decision that this is the only way to go.
When we returned after the cruise, they dropped us off right at our car, and even gave us some cold bottled water when we checked out. I cannot say enough about how good they were.
Boarding the Ship. As we are Diamond (Crown & Anchor Society) we had express check-in and boarding. Our stateroom was not quite ready when we arrived, so as is customary, we went up to the Windjammer for lunch.
When we arrived at our cabin, it was an interesting view from the balcony. As we had hoped, we could see the Aqua Theater pretty well, along with the activity along the boardwalk.
One thing though that surprised us was the mega-whatever big screen monitors were running 24 hours a day, so you had to pull the shades at night to keep excess light from entering the cabin. And since you could see straight across the boardwalk to the cabins on the other side of the ship, you would be well to keep the drapes closed in your cabin for modesty.
Probably the most significant difference between the Oasis and Allure was in the Boardwalk. The Oasis had the Seafood Shack, and an attended Donut shop, while the Allure had Rita's Cantina, an unattended Donut shop (self serve) and a gourmet hot-dog bar the Oasis did not have. We kind of missed the hot-dog bar.
Also, the Allure had a Brazilian steak house in the Solarium area, while the Oasis had a more generic dining facility. Otherwise, the two ships seemed pretty much the same to me.
Departure. While it seems to rain everytime we leave Ft. Lauderdale on a cruise, on this departure, the weather was beautiful..
Nassau, Bahamas. This was the 5th or 6th time we had visited Nassau - although it was my son's first time, we did not do much. And we had to leave around 1:45pm, so we really didn't have enough time to go to the beach or take much of an excursion. So we simply went downtown for awhile. Over the years, the Nassau downtown area has seemed to have gotten a lot larger, with many more tourist shops. We visited on a Sunday, as we remember the first time visiting Nassau on a Sunday (about 12yrs ago), the place was pretty much vacant - and most stores were not open. It was far different this time.
We departed Nassau on time, but about 2 hours after departure, the Captain informed us we had a serious medical emergency on board, so we were going back to Nassau. After dropping the sick person off, we were about 4 hours behind schedule. The captain ran as fast as he could to St. Thomas to make up time, and as it turned out, we were only 1 1/2 hours late in reaching port. He also extended our port visit by an hour, as it was not that far to the next port (St. Maarten) from St. Thomas.
However, the important thing is the person that was evacuated was doing better, and that was great news.
Tip 28: Always buy cruise insurance, whether it be from the cruise line or independantly. Of the 16 times we have been on a cruise, there were 4 times we had to divert to a port or medivac someone off the ship. So with a 25% chance of this happening on a cruise, it occurs fairly frequently. There are millions of cruise passengers per year, so this is just a reflection of life. And if you need to be evacuated or have medical treatment, it can be very expensive. For instance, a private chartered flight can cost $50k, and some domestic insurance policies are not valid overseas. For the relatively low cost of cruise insurance, it just makes sense to buy it.
St. Thomas. When we arrived at the pier, an ambulance was waiting for the ship to take another passenger to the hospital. Again, this is a reminder of the necessitity of crusie insurance.
This was our 6th visit to St. Thomas, so we have seen about everything here before. After seeing the same islands over and over again, it generally comes down to either going to the beach or just staying on board and having the ship to yourself for a few hours. As the Oasis and Allure berth at Crowne Bay rather than Long Bay at the Havensight Mall area, this was a first for us (we took the Western Caribbean route on the Allure). Unfortunately, at Crowne Bay, there is really less to do there than at Havensight. We had thought we might take the Tram to Paradise Point, but we would have had to berth at Havensight to do that.
St. Maarten. In a similar fashion, this was our 7th trip to St. Maarten. As we have seen much of St. Maarten, this is typically a beach day. If you take a ship-board excursion, you will typically end up at Orient beach on the French side. Note that all of the beaches on the French side are topless - and those that are not are also bottomless (fully nude). On the Dutch side, they are neither topless or nude.
The reason we like St. Maarten so much as a beach day is it is one of the easiest ways to get to the beach. The beaches in Philipsburg where the ship docks are some of the most easiest to get to in the Caribbean. You can walk the short distance from the cruise terminal to downtown - but it is almost a mile - or you can take a water taxi.
The water taxi costs $5 for a one way trip, or $7 for unlimited passage for the entire day. Stops include the central downtown area, as well as a stop on each end of the downtown boardwalk, and of course - near the ship's pier.
On the beach front, there are three locations to pick up the water taxi back to the pier, or you can walk the short distance (around a mile). There are also plenty of shops and resturants along the boardwalk in Philipsburg to explore. And of course, there is also the downtown area as well.
Technically, all of the beaches are free of cost, but you have to pay for use of a beach chair if you want one. There are many vendors renting two beach chairs, an umbrella, and 6 beverages of your choice for $20 or $25. We always take advantage of these as it is not an expensive way to spend the day.
While we were enjoying the beach, we also enjoyed watching "Seaweed Man"; a Carnival passenger that had beach chairs next to us that was totally wasted. He was obvously enjoying himself with plenty of beer, and was putting seaweed on his head. At one point, he even ate some of the seaweed. Since his wife and family were with him, I trust he got back to his ship OK, as I don't think he would have ever found the way back on his own.
Later that evening, we booked the "Seafood Beach Party" at the Seafood Shack on the Oasis. This is a once-per-week event that costs a flat charge from the ship, but includes a festive atmosphere... including music, dancing, goofy balloon hats, and just a fun time. I highly recommend this party, but since the facility can only accomidate around 100 guests, I highly recommend booking this event on-line as soon as you decide book your cruise. The Allure has a similar event at Rita's Cantina. These events are held on Wednesday (for both ships).
Tip 29: Most of the entertainment events require reservations. You can reserve on-line prior to your cruise, or you can reserve anytime on-board. This is required as it is the only way to manage 6,000 guests. By planning your week well in advance, you can book each entertainment spot prior to arrival, so that you can be assured of something each night. Otherwise, the venues open up 15 minutes prior to the start of the show for general seating, so if you wait in the open seating queue, you might get a seat.
The remainder of the cruise was pretty much uneventful and we had 2 great days at sea to enjoy the ship.
Return. On the day of the return, there were some issues with getting off the ship. The border patrol delayed our disembarking about 2 hours, and when we got to the luggage area, most of it had already been off-loaded. Whether or not they laid out all of the luggage for inspection or what the reason was, when 6,000 people are trying to get off the ship, it was pretty much chaos. People were not paying attention to their called number, and consequently there were people congregating around traffic areas.
One thing you just about have to do on board ship is to follow disembarking procedures - especially with the number of people on board. The procedures have been developed to allow smooth debarking, and when people do not follow them, chaos results. This seems to be more of a problem with ships such as the Allure and Oasis where most of the passengers are first-time cruisers, and may not realize this.