Tag Archives: Caribbean

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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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).

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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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Shark wrestling (and 5 other sea creatures I’d like to meet)

I defeated a shark.

Albeit, a baby one. But a shark nonetheless.

Sharkie and me.

As a diver and avid water enthusiast, I’ve always been fascinated with sharks. Sure, I’m terrified as much as the next guy, but I’ve always been strangely obsessed with things that terrify me (hence my all-consuming obsession with horror, gore and all things Halloween).

And when it comes to sharks, the more up-close-and-personal I can get with them, the better (unless they’re sneaking up on me to have me as dinner). Now, I’ve been diving around sharks before, and I’m sure there have been plenty of times they have been lurking below me as I frolicked at the surface, but there’s nothing more exciting than coming into contact with one (in a good way, not a “my-leg-just-got-ripped-off-by-a-shark” kind of way).

Shark attack!

Catching the six-footer off the coast of Key West two years ago was awesome. I wish I could find the pictures to show them off to you now, but you’ll just have to trust me. But we cut the line before I even had a chance to say goodbye, let alone touch it. So catching Sharkie (as I’ve dubbed him) last week was quite exhilarating; here was a baby shark that was big and strong enough to put up a good fit but small enough to come on board for a quick photo op. As terrifyingly awesome as it was to hold the thrashing beast in my bare hands, there are still several other sea-beasts I’d like to encounter before I croak. In no particular order:

A whale. They may be gentle-ish creatures (to us, not plankton), but they are so massive and hard to come across it would be a shame never to meet one. Plus I could probably even have a conversation with one if I channel Dory from Finding Nemo.

Dolphins. I swam with dolphins on several occasions (thank you travel & tourism), and it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. But I want to get cozy with a wild dolphin. I’ve tried to no avail, but I know one day it will happen. And when it does, they will push me out of the water with just their nose. I’m sure of it.

Sharks. I know I’ve already encountered several sharks, both above the ocean and below it. But until I encounter every species (okay, maybe not every species of shark, but at least all the really cool ones), this one will still be on my list. With a giant, man-eating great white at the top of the list.

The Loch Ness Monster. I know this one doesn’t technically reside in the sea (if it resides at all, which I believe it does), but it’s too noteworthy not to include. I want to dive Loch Ness and come face to face with the elusive monster and hope it doesn’t swallow me whole.

A giant squid. I’m not talking a tiny little blob of a creature that is smaller than a boat or one of those dinky ones that you see at the aquarium. I’m talking legendary Kraken-size, like, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea proportions. I want to go down in my little submarine with Jules Verne and be overtaken by a giant squid whose eyeball alone could swallow the city of New York. And then I will write the best-selling, Nobel-prize-winning novel 21,000 Leagues Under the Sea and retire with (most) of my body parts still intact.

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The perks of buying your own island

With its close proximity to other parts of the world, and the closeness of the islands to each other, the idea of owning your own piece of paradise could be just the ticket to a more laid-back lifestyle. It may cost a pretty penny, but buying your own island getaway has many perks that far outweigh the large price tag.

I'd buy that.

You can do whatever you want. I’m not exactly sure what rules apply as far as being controlled by any specific country or government- most islands for sale fall under one national jurisdiction or another. So you couldn’t go as far as committing criminal acts (though, if you killed someone, who would ever know?), but to some degree, you could get away with less-than-acceptable behavior, as so deemed by the PC rules set forth by society. For example, you could decide to live free and au natural, leaving the confines of clothing behind on the mainland. Either way, you’d be guaranteed secluded living, giving you the opportunity to do as you please on a day-to-day basis.

You have a guaranteed getaway when life gets overwhelming. Most people hit a snag in life when things start to build up too much and boil over. For most, the stress of life is something that has to be pushed to the side and ignored in hopes it will go away on its own. A vacation every now and then helps, but there’s usually stress or some hassle involved in planning and booking. Kind of like owning a second home in some remote part of the world- or simply the next state over- owning your own island gives you the leisure to come and go as you please.

It’s the ultimate bragging right. Who wouldn’t want to, during small talk with new acquaintances, casually rub in the fact that they own an island? No big deal.

It may sound completely ridiculous to own your own island. But if you have the funds, it’s almost silly not to; it’s only a credit-card-swipe away. And who knows, maybe you can even make it your permanent residence.

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What to do when your tropical vacation turns into a stormy mess

Be better prepared for the weather than I was here, freezing, being snowed on at the Louvre (yes, those are leggings. See: falling incredibly ill)

We’ve all had it happen. We go away on a much-anticipated vacation, and something goes horribly awry with the weather (I certainly wasn’t expecting a blizzard atop the Eiffel Tower during my late-February weekend in Paris). We prepare for a problem-free trip, and the minute we get there the conditions are frustratingly less-than-perfect. But don’t fear. There are plenty of alternative ways to enjoy your vacation without stepping foot out into the miserable monsoon raging outside. Here are a few of my favorites:

Learn how to play chess. It probably sounds really boring to those who’ve never given it a go, but it’s actually a very challenging and fun way to pass the time. Learning the game is quick and easy, but the real challenge is the strategy involved to win. Spend an afternoon honing your pawn-crushing skills and give your brain a little stimulation.

Read. Everyone always brings a book with them on vacation, especially to the islands. Nothing seems more relaxing than enjoying a good read under an umbrella in the sand, sipping on a tropical drink while the calm Caribbean Sea laps up against the shore. But more times than not, we never get around to actually reading on vacation. Usually we’re too busy partying or napping in the sun to care, but when the weather turns sour, curl up somewhere cozy- I prefer a secluded nook (hotels are full of them)- and get caught up in a good book.

Drink. The outdoor tiki bar might be flooded, but your resort is bound to have several indoor bars to help you pass the time. Hang out and socialize with the bartender, and get to know the other guests staying in the hotel. When you start to branch out and make new “vacation friends,” you usually find you have a lot in common, and that they’re a lot of fun. Especially if there’s no sign of ever making it outside again, expanding your social circle on vacation makes the time pass a lot quicker, and a lot better (if not a lot rowdier!).

Exercise. I’m not talking about a strenuous workout, one with a 45-minute treadmill run and 200 reps on each of the hotel gym’s machines. But getting your body moving a little bit will help keep the blood flowing and prevent you from feeling too sluggish- you’re already trapped inside, no point in making it any more uncomfortable. Find out if your resort has yoga classes; there are plenty of rejuvenating and restorative classes available that keep the body energized without breaking a huge sweat.

With a plethora of other options, there’s no reason why foul weather should spoil your well-deserved vacation. If you run out of ideas on your own, check in with the front desk, they always have a million and one suggestions on how to best enjoy your vacation.

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