This was a grand cruise. Since we had been on two cruises prior, my mom was wanting to go. My dad had died a couple of years earlier, and she was finally wanting to do something. So she decided she wanted to go on a cruise with us, and even better, wanted to pay for the grand kids to go as well (two of our children and two of my brother's kids). The four grandchildren, if we can still call them kids, ranged in age from 15 to 25 yrs old.
The grandchildren; 3 boys and one girl, were in college or high school, but made arrangements to leave school for a week. Along with my wife and my mom, there were 7 of us. We then booked three inside cabins; my wife and I in one, mom and niece in another, and my two sons and nephew in the third. To ensure one cabin would handle 3 passengers, We booked 10 months in advance, and we were able to get two adjacent cabins, and our cabin separated the other two by one room.
We again booked the day-prior package with the cruise line. While my wife and I were comfortable enough at this point to book our own air and make our own hotel and transfer arrangements, we felt it would be a lot easier to have the cruise line handle everything since there were 7 of us on this cruise. I surely didn't want to put our family into 3 cabs at the Miami airport and hope they all made it to the hotel - and to repeat the same thing for arrival to the cruise ship the next day. While it might have been a bit more expensive to book with the cruise line, it was certainly more convenient.
My niece and nephew live in northern Ohio, about 2 driving hours away. And again, at 4am departure day, my brother dropped them off at our house. My niece and nephew had been up since about midnight. For logistical reasons (getting 7 people to the airport), we left from Grand Rapids, as it was the most convenient airport, and the easiest to drive to. We left from my house; I drove my car with my mom and niece in the back, and the three boys with one of my son's drove my pickup with all of our luggage in the back. The drive to the airport was about an hour.
Arrival at the airport and the flight was uneventful. We had a connecting flight in Nashville, then it was non-stop to Miami. We were picked up at the airport and shuttled to the hotel. I am sure glad we purchased everything as a complete package as it made the logistics of doing this a lot easier. We arrived at the hotel pretty early that day - just a bit after noon.
We were staying at the same hotel in downtown Miami we had on our last trip - the Hyatt Regency. When you book the day prior with the cruise line, they provide the same arrangements as the cabins you book. For instance, we booked 3 cabins so we had 3 rooms. However, this didn't really work out very well at the hotel for the three boys only having two double beds (in the ship's cabin, it was OK as each bed was a single bunk). Fortunately my wife and my hotel room had two double beds, so one of the boys slept in the other bed in our room.
For dinner that day, we decided to walk to the Bayside Marketplace in Downtown Miami - about a mile away. I am not sure of the wisdom of doing so, but we had no problems. In fact, much of Biscayne Blvd was blocked off to traffic as the Miami Grand Prix was to occur in a few days and part of the race route was down Biscayne Blvd, so they were prepairing for the race.
At Bayside Marketplace, we ate at the Hard Rock Cafe; the one with the big Guitar on the roof that was blown off a couple of years before during a hurricane. I think they eventually found the Guitar in the Everglades, or somewhere.
On the return trip to the hotel, we walked a slightly different route, and found ourself in a retail area that didn't look quite the same, with a lot of shops being what I would categorize as "rip-off" electronics and cameras. But we made it back to the hotel without incident.
Departure. The day of the cruise, guess what? It was raining again. It rained on departure day each time we have cruised out of Miami. We were picked up about 11:30AM by a shuttle bus, and went to the cruise port. Again, having the night prior package, we were taken to a private departure lounge where our check-in process was quickly completed. One thing I did was to have my brother and his ex-wife notarize a permission slip that their children had permission to travel with us and that we had temporary power of attorney for things like obtaining medical treatment or whatever needs became necessary.
Tip #7. If travelling with minor children not your own, get a notarized permission from both parents.
We had 6PM dining, and the 7 of us had our own table. In those days, they brought an entire basket of bread to the table (now days, they don't leave the bread, but just give you what you want). My eldest son is a bread 'aholic, and he could seemingly eat almost one basket of bread himself. So after the first day, the waiter would bring him his own basket of bread, and another basket for the rest of us. It was all sort of a joke really, and it made for a good laugh each evening.
Again on this cruise, the ship offered a midnight buffet in the main dining room one evening, as well as a poolside midnight Jamacian bash. The Jerk Chicken tasted awfully good.
For this cruise, I purchased my first Digital Camera, a Canon PowerShot A40 - a whopping 2.1 MegaPixel camera. I still took my Nikon 35mm camera and Sony Hi-8mm CamCorder as well.
Labadee. Again, this was a tender port as the dock had yet to be built. My mom found a nice beach chair where she spent most of the afternoon relaxing in the sun. Again, you need sunblock here, as the sun is awfully strong. The three boys rented snorkeling equipment, and would have had a blast if there were any fish! Seems that over the years, the locals have fished the waters clean. We had a beach lunch, then I bought a wooden Chess Set from the straw market.
Jamaica. Jamacia is a beautiful country. We diverted a bit from our custom of taking an island tour on this cruise as we had more family with us, and they had different interests. We found a combo-excursion that took in a Banana Plantation at Brimmer Hall and a visit to Dunn's River Falls. We learned how to talk Jamacian slang from our tour guide; I'm irie mon!
Dunn's River Falls is perhaps the most popular excursion in Jamacia. There is an element of danger here (or at least there was when we went in 2002), and a lot of the rocks are slippery. And there are so many people here that it is pretty hard to climb the falls. You usually start at the ocean and climb up the river.
Tip #8. If going to the falls, be sure to bring water shoes so you don't slip on rocks (although in 2002, you could rent them locally).
Consequently, we were only able to get half-way up the falls before it was time to go back to the ship. My mom just found a nice water pool on the side of the falls and waited for us there.
Upon leaving the falls, there was a straw market where the locals sell their stuff, and these guys are pros! You can exit without going through the "gauntlet", but it's not well marked as where to exit. If you do go through the straw market, it's not dangerous or anything like that; its just a lot of people wanting to sell their handicrafts. Use your discretion, and be prepaired to deal with pros if you barter. But like other areas in the Caribbean, these folk are poor, and this may be their only source of income, so pay them a fair price for their labor and craftsmanship.
As we left Jamacia, the captain announced that two passengers failed to return to the ship, and against his better judgement, he was turning around to retrieve them. He had mentioned that he normally would have left them, but he didn't have the heart to leave them in Jamacia. Since we were only about a mile out, we simply slowed down and the harbor pilot boat brought them aboard.
Tip #9. Unless you are on an excursion sponsored by the cruise ship, the ship will NOT wait for you if you are late in returning.
Tip #10. Never, never, never leave the ship in a foreign port without your Passports. Always take them with you.
Tip #11. Obtain bona-fide Passports rather than a Passport Card. You cannot fly out of a foreign port with a Passport Card.
September is a prime month for Hurricanes in the Caribbean, and true to the time of the year, there were two hurricanes in the area. As we made the East-to-West trip from Labadee to the Cayman Islands, hurricane Isadore was two days in front of us, and Hurricane Lili was two days behind us. They were far enough away that we didn't even experience any high seas.
Cayman Islands. The Cayman Islands is also a tender port. On this port-of-call, we were booked for Stingray City. But my mom was not feeling good that day, so she decided to stay on the ship rather than go with the rest of us. And unfortunately, she missed a highlight of the cruise, as Stingray City was a blast. It's a real experience being able to swim and pet the Stingrays. Of course we bought the video and the T-shirt. On the return to the ship after the excursion, we only had a few minutes in port, so my wife and niece did some 15 minute "power shopping".
Tip #12. If you cancel an excursion at least 24 hours in advance, you may get a refund. But there are restrictions.
Cozumel. Our last port-of-call was another combo-excursion. We went to the Mayan ruins located in the center of the island. It was a bit disappointing. We were expecting to see sacrifical pymarids, and we only saw ruins of a town. Still it was interesting. The second half of the excursion was a beach break and lunch at Playa Del Sol, which is now called Playa Mia.
Be aware that Black Coral is endangered in Cozumel, and, the sales of Black Coral is controlled, and it is illegal unless you buy it from an approved dealer (at least in 2002). Black Coral purchased from street vendors may be illegal, or more likely is fake (plastic or other material).
Tip #13. Make sure you know that laws of other countries before purchasing exotic items.
Return On our return to Miami, we had the pleasure of spotting a pod of dolphins from our dining room window. It made a nice finish to the trip. The return flight was uneventful, with a layover in Detroit. Since we live in small-town America, we typically cannot get a direct non-stop flight to Miami (unless we leave from a major city, like Detroit).