Category Archives: Travel

A day in Costa Maya, Mexico (NCL 7-day cruise, Day 5)

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Photo with the locals.

Our third country, Costa Maya was our 1st of 2 Mexican ports of call. We had originally left this day open to just wing it and wander, but when our snuba in Roatan was canceled due to weather, we rebooked a catamaran and snorkel excursion for Costa Maya (since the weather forecast was better). But of course, in true vacation fashion, things always change from what you planned (especially where weather is concerned) and when we got off the ship, our trip had been canceled (again). Everything else was already booked, except a beach day excursion, so we took it. As annoyed as I was to not be able to snorkel and to have to pay $65/person to go to a nearby beach, it turned out to be perfect. Our fee ended up including an open bar tab and a taxi ride back to the ship, so all we spent once at the beach was the $8 on chips and guac (which was authentically Mexican and delicious) and the $15 to tip our server, Juan. We spent several hours relaxing on a beautiful beach, sipping pina coladas as fast as Juan could bring them. We also had access to a swim-up bar and, of course, the Caribbean Sea. Laying under a palm hut, it truly felt like our own piece of paradise.

Favorite moment/memory: Juan. He was this big teddy bear of a Mexican man, super friendly and instantly likable. He definitely made our beach day that much better.

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Check out my 12 tips to cruise stress-free post to help you plan your own cruise vacation.

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A day in Belize City, Belize (NCL 7-day cruise, Day 4)

IMG_6398Our second country and second port of call, Belize City was another enjoyable place to visit. Unexpectedly, when we got off the ship, we were anchored in the middle of the ocean (we later found out the Belizeans are trying to avoid dredging by limiting the number and size of boats that come to shore), but it only added to the tropical beauty of it all when we returned to enjoy a drink on the top deck, overlooking the coastline and the gorgeous Caribbean Sea. It’s as blue and beautiful as it seems in photographs.

Originally we had booked an excursion to visit Altun Ha Mayan Ruins & Bacab Jungle Park. Due to overbooking (so they said), our tour was (yet again) canceled, but I still wanted to see the ruins, so we re-booked just the ruins (without any extras). It ended up working out better, because we were still able to come back to the pier, have lunch, and then re-board the ship and get some pool time without all the extra bodies (because everyone else was still out on their own tours). The ruins were small, but the tour provided just the right amount of time to explore on our own, not too long where we got done early and were bored, not too short where we had to rush. It was the Goldilocks of Mayan ruins. Another win for tropical cruise vacationing. From here it was on to Mexico.

Favorite moment: Standing at the top of the ceremonial bloodletting temple (the tallest one we could climb) and looking out over the site and the jungle beyond. I can only imagine what it must have looked like thousands of years ago when the Mayans lived there.

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On top of the ceremonial temple at Altun Ha.

If you’re planning your own cruise, check out my 12 tips to cruise stress-free post.

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12 tips to cruise stress-free

Kevin and I just got home from our first cruise together (and his first cruise ever, shocking, I know). While this was my 3rd cruise overall, it was the longest I’ve ever taken, and my first time on Norwegian Cruise Line. My first was a 4-day Bahamian cruise on Royal Caribbean for my friend Karen’s 30th, and while that trip was a blast simply because of the company (how could you not have a great time with 4 of your friends, especially when all of you are wearing shirts with the birthday girl’s face on them?), I definitely thought NCL was a better choice than my RC experience. I’m not sure what Norwegian cruise ships are like for 4-day trips, but if the shorter trips are anything like the 7-day was, I highly recommend NCL for all your cruising needs. And I’m not even being paid to write this review (although, Norwegian, if you’re reading this, I’ll take payment in the form of a free cruise, thanks).

honduras view

View from the top: Roatan, Honduras. You can see our ship off to the right, in port.

I would choose Norwegian over any other for the food alone. We only ate at the buffet for breakfast and lunch (when we weren’t eating lunch in port), which was still good as far as buffet food goes. We ate dinner exclusively at the two complimentary restaurants on board, Versailles and Aqua, both of which required resort casual attire, had a nice ambiance, and featured a nightly changing selection of delicious appetizers, entrees, and desserts. Compared to the dining room included on my RC cruise, the atmosphere and food itself was of a higher quality.

The entertainment was also very enjoyable, and there seemed to be plenty of options for everyone on board. But this isn’t a post about how awesome Norwegian Cruise Line is (although it was for us). This is simply a compilation of all my tips on how to cruise, and do it in a way that will save you time, money, and aggravation. In no particular order, here are 12 tips to cruising stress-free:

1. Make sure your room isn’t directly under a high-traffic public space (like a dining room). I didn’t consider this one ahead of time, and we ended up a floor directly below the main buffet room. Which was convenient when we wanted to eat breakfast, but the early risers scraping chairs across the floor while we were trying to sleep in was definitely annoying. There’s always going to be some noise you can’t control while you’re trying to sleep, but this is at least one variable you can research and try to correct.

2. Book excursions & make dinner reservations before you leave for your trip. Most cruise lines will have at least one main dining room with complimentary dinner, and you want to make sure you claim the time slot you want, otherwise you’ll get stuck with a shitty dinner time or worse, there won’t be any more available reservations & you’ll have to eat dinner at the buffet. Which I guess is cool if you’d rather eat food that isn’t as fancy or delicious. It’s also a good idea to book excursions ahead as well to save yourself the hassle of standing in line once on board the ship. This also ensures the excursions you want don’t book up before you get a chance to sign up. Keep in mind this doesn’t guarantee they will happen (we had 3 of our pre-paid excursions canceled & had to re-book once on board), so keep a few backups in mind as well.

3. Book the Ultimate (unlimited) Beverage Package. We got lucky that NCL was running a promo when we booked that gave us the option of booking UBP free (although Kevin is still convinced it was factored into our fees somehow and was never truly free). But if you plan on drinking anything other than juice or water (and this even applies to soda), you’ll want to consider adding this to your booking. It may seem like a lot of money per person per day, but those drinks add up fast on their own. You’ll be glad you did when you’re going up to the bar every half hour for “just one more” delicious drink of the day; I wouldn’t want to see our drink bill if we were paying out of pocket, I might faint.

4. If you get motion sickness, keep a pair of Sea Bands on or nearby at all times. These things saved my life. Not literally, but they definitely made my cruise enjoyable, without the drowsy side effects of medicine.

5. Pack clothing for all occasions. At the risk of over-packing, make sure you have a variety of outfits & footwear. Obviously bathing suits are a must. Beach/pool towels are unnecessary (and will just take up valuable luggage space), as the ship provides them. Bring a few nice outfits for dinner, and a sweatshirt for those cool, windy nights on the top deck. If you plan on doing water excursions, like snorkeling or dolphin encounters, bring a rash guard and board shorts to throw on over your bathing suit. I also recommend water shoes or Teva sandals (or something similar) for these as well. If you plan on hiking or doing tours with a lot of walking, bring sneakers & socks. Bring a small backpack or beach bag for any excursions off the ship. You’ll need a place to stow towels, water, cameras, change of dry clothes, and anything else you might want on shore.

6. Take bottled water with you when you board. You will need plenty of it in each port and on your excursions, and cruise lines allow you to bring your own on with you when you check in. You may feel like a nerd walking in with a case of water, but you’ll be glad you saved yourself the money later. I spent $3 on a case from Walgreens & we drank all 24 over the course of the week. Times that by roughly $2-$5 a bottle you’ll end up paying if you wait & buy as you go, and that’s a lot of dough you’ll save for more important things. Like souvenirs.

7. Bring a waterproof camera or phone for excursions you’ll get wet on. Whether you splurge on an expensive waterproof phone case or buy a $20 disposable water camera, make sure you have some way to capture memories on water excursions. If you want to go above and beyond with your photography, I recommend a Go Pro (especially for things like ziplining & cave tubing).

8. Bring reading material. Whether it’s a few books or magazines, or the novel-length instruction manual for the new gadget you just bought, bring something to occupy the downtime you will have at the pool, on the beach, if it rains, etc.

9. Make sure you have plenty of small bills. While it’s not always necessary to have the local country’s currency (most countries accept USD), it is a good idea to have $1s, $5s and $10s, and not just a stack of bigger bills. Even having a wad of $20s can be inconvenient, because if you plan on doing shore excursions, or need taxi rides, or plan on ordering food/beverages off the ship, you’ll want smaller bills to tip the drivers, tour guides and waiters who provide you their services.

10. If you have a full day at sea, get up early enough to snag a lounge chair by the pool. We had two full days at sea, and wanted nothing more than to lay by the pool, soak up the sun and some fruity drinks and relax. Cruise ships ask guests not to reserve pool chairs for more than an hour (as a courtesy to other guests), but no one follows this rule, which ends up screwing over good people like us who try to play by the rules. The first sea day, we barely found chairs that were together, and they were off on the side, away from the pool and near the basketball court (not the ideal deck location for sunbathing). So on our last day on board, our second sea day, we got up a little earlier and dropped our things off before heading to breakfast. This way, we were able to get a good spot on the top deck above the pool and away from the chaos, but still close enough to feel apart of the action and take a dip when it got too hot. We also only left our things unattended for about an hour while we ate breakfast and went back to our room to freshen up, so we were still able to “follow the rules” and be courteous to the other guests. Nothing more annoying than trying to find a place to lay out only to have them all covered with towels that no one ever comes to claim. People can be quite selfish, so keep this in mind and find a happy medium when it comes to claiming your chairs.

11. Whatever your budget, add an extra $100-$200 per person. When you book your cruise, the cruise line will let you know (at the end of all your paperwork, in very small print) that there will be a daily service fee per person charged to your account once on board. This helps take care of the housekeeping and waitstaff that will take care of you once on board, so I’m totally fine with it. However, it isn’t paid up front, so be prepared to provide a credit card for these fees as well as any other on-board charges that you may find yourself spending. All ship purchases that aren’t included (like souvenirs, extra drinks, taxes, etc.) will be charged to this card, so make sure you budget for this when saving for your trip. It’s also customary to leave an additional tip for your cabin steward (as you have the same person the whole trip who makes up your room and provides daily ship info and leaves you fun towel animals), but this can be given directly to that individual, and in cash.

12. Be prepared to gain 5-10 lbs. With the amount of food and drink you will consume (and it’s all so delicious, you will want to try it all), it’s not uncommon to gain extra weight while on a cruise. Unless you are one of those super health-conscious people who makes use of the ship’s fitness center, don’t worry about the few pounds you’ll walk off the ship with. If you’re really that concerned about it, try to cut back on the extras you usually eat or drink before you go, as well as when you return home again. As well, take the stairs on the ship as often as possible, and only use the elevators when absolutely necessary, such as boarding and disembarking (with all your luggage). Once your body recovers from the overload of food and drink that it’s not used to and goes back to it’s normal diet, you should be fine.

Whether you’ve been on a cruise before or if this is your first time, these tips will all help when booking and planning, and when it comes time to actually set sail, you’ll be cruising stress-free and at ease.

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7 things to do and see in New Orleans (according to me, which makes it true)

So naturally I did not write while I was in New Orleans, but hey, I was busy having a blast so who has time for things like blogging when they’re having fun? I absolutely loved the city, and had a great time sightseeing with my favorite person. Although I won’t be back anytime soon, I would definitely love to go back again in my lifetime just to spend a little more time in such a cool place. Among all the greatness, here are a few things we did that I highly recommend to anyone visiting this historic (albeit falling down around you) city.

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Never did figure out why all the graves were above ground.

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Never did figure out why all the graves were above ground.

Check out the cemeteries. The notable ones are the St. Louis Cemeteries, of which there are several, but of which I’m sure people really only go to No. 1 (we went to No. 2 as well and it was deserted, clearly no one cares). We went on our own and just wandered the plots (which were surprisingly unorganized), and whenever we’d happen upon a tour group, we just sort of hung out near the back and caught whatever history lesson the guide was giving. It might be cheating, not paying for a tour, but I recommend it. Spend your money elsewhere, and just jump in on a group whenever you come upon them, they won’t even notice (and are probably used to it anyway).

Eat a lot of good food. Jambalaya, gumbo, etouffee, po’ boys, the list of delicious food is endless. I highly recommend Jacques-Imo’s and Joey K’s.

Ride the streetcar. Talk about a time warp. That thing looks like it’s from the 50s, and probably is. It’s loud and usually crowded but it’s a fun way to travel around the city besides walking. It also feels like a piece of history, so you kind of have to, at least once.

My future home (the crappy one in the middle).

My future home (the crappy one in the middle).

Walk the French Quarter. This is obvious but worth naming anyway. Known mostly for its quaint, old homes and drunken adventures on Bourbon Street, there’s much more to do in this bustling neighborhood than just that. Wander the streets during the day and take in the scenery. You’ll encounter the traditional Nawlins architecture the city is known for, as well as one-of-a-kind shops and restaurants. If you follow the streets down to the river, you can also take in a great view of the Mississippi and the city together. At night, as well as during the day, you’ll find an array of street performers and craft fairs to delight everyone’s tastes. And of course, with the city’s lax open container laws, you can get drunk and wander the streets with your beverages. Perfect for toting a 64 ounce fishbowl. Man, I miss that thing.

Book an airboat/swamp tour. If you’re at all interested in seeing how most people live and thrive, take a ride through the swamps. The airboats are a loud, but fun way to get out on the water and learn about “swamp people culture.” We booked with  Jean Lafitte Tours and were not disappointed. I was hoping to see alligators, but since it’s winter, they were hibernating. Our guide did let us hold a baby gator he brought along, though, so I was satisfied.

Drive through the 9th Ward. It’s definitely still rundown, but it is the best way to get a glimpse of what happened to the city during Katrina. Although it’s certainly eerie seeing the abandoned houses with the rescue codes still spray painted on the outsides, almost as if it just happened days ago. Don’t expect to feel happy traveling through, but I do recommend it to anyone passionate about the area’s history, as well as anyone interested in gaining an understanding of what the people there endured.

I wouldn't have minded owning slaves here. Just kidding. I'm from the North.

I wouldn’t have minded owning slaves here. Just kidding. I’m from the North.

Visit Oak Alley Plantation. While it is an hour’s drive outside of NOLA, this plantation is definitely worth the trip out. With beautiful grounds and main house, and absolutely stunning oak trees lining the entrance, you’ll feel like you just stepped back into pre-Civil War times (although sans slavery, that would just be weird now). There are also several other plantations nearby, so if you need more of a plantation fix, there are many others to tour as well.

With all this New Orleans talk, I miss it already. I’m going to go cry into a pillow now and long for the days when I could aimlessly walk the streets of the French Quarter with my fishbowl, without a care in the world. Excuse me.

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Why I refuse to let the Costa Concordia scare me away from cruising (and why you should too)

Despite how tragic this is (not to mention how fake and photoshopped the picture looks), this isn't a good representation of how typical cruising goes down. Er, I mean how typical cruising happens (too soon for a pun).

In light of the recent tragedy in Italy, speculation is being raised about the safeness of cruising. It’s a valid concern, but society is letting a rare, albeit horrific, accident get the better of them. The cruise industry is sure to see some decline in numbers this year- or at least for the next few months- but recent events aside, cruising is not any more dangerous than it has been in the past. In fact, compared to the dangers we encounter in everyday life, cruising is safer than some activities we participate in on a daily basis.

You are more likely to die in a car crash. Automobiles are probably the most dangerous motorized vessel we could ever step foot in. Drivers on the roads these days have become more careless, and, thanks to technology, have displayed riskier behavior than in years past. Currently, texting while driving is outlawed in 27 states in the U.S., as well as the District of Columbia. While the remaining states are pushing to pass the law as well, having a law in effect doesn’t mean it will stop drivers from committing the act of texting while driving. In fact, more than ever, people are talking and texting while driving, with no fear of consequences. In 2010, there were over 32,000 automobile fatalities in the U.S. alone. Last year, there were less than 200 deaths on cruise ships, with less than half that number directly related to sinkings. The most notable crash of 2011, that of the Russian ship the Bulgaria, only contributed about 50 percent of the total death toll, putting death by cruising low on the scale of dangerous activities.

The odds are in your favor. Accidents happen. They are a part of life and are happening everyday all over the world. In fact, there’s probably an accident happening somewhere at this exact moment. But, with such low statistics surrounding cruise fatalities, the likelihood of your cruise ship sinking is slim to none.

Just a guess, but I don't think you'd survive that.

It’s better than flying to your vacation destination. If you’re in a “cruise crash,” you have a window of time to get yourself safely off the boat and to safety; however small or big the window may be, you still have that fighting chance. If you choose instead to fly to a destination, you face the risk of a plane crash. Planes are more likely to crash than a cruise is; flying leaves more room for error and, unlike a cruise crash, if you go down in a plane you have little to no chance of survival, especially depending on where you crash (or what you crash into).

There are probably a million other reasons to support the claim that cruising is no more dangerous now than it was last week, before the Costa Concordia went down. With the dangers we face on a daily basis, there’s no logical reason to keep yourself from enjoying life just on the off chance something bad might happen.

Besides, I have to keep reassuring myself of this, because I’m in the middle of planning a free cruise (right?! be jealous). So as long as I don’t end up with a bonehead captain- one who decides to not only go off course, but to abandon ship before everyone reaches safety- I should be in the clear.

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