Rhapsody of the Seas
Keep Checking back...every day I will add another day to our report...so it's like a "Virtual Cruise"!
This was our first "spring break " cruise. Mind you our own college kids weren't with us, they were invited, but one decided to do “Alternative Spring Break” for Meals on Wheel and the other, about to graduate, stayed on campus to finish her capstone project. Clearly, when your kids prefer to do homework and community service rather than cruise with you, there’s a message being sent! So we embarked alone- We'd heard things about “Spring Break Cruises”; dark tales of debauchery, drunkenness, buffets being razed like locust infested prairies. What we discovered instead is groups of young adults whom someone trusted enough to spend 40 grand a year on their education and they had clearly taken the responsibility seriously. These were smart, respectful, and generally fun loving (and after Cozumel, a little tipsy) young adults who came to have fun and not ruin anyone else’s. We never viewed any behavior we would call rude or dangerous. The ship's security kept close but not overbearing watch, and overall it was less “girls gone wild” and more “mellow house party”. If you have no ability remember that you were once young, randy and foolish (maybe you still are?) then you won't be able to relate, but overall, these young folks were having a great time, and we thought they brought a liveliness to the cruise that made our cruise even more fun!
Day One: Embarking
I spent Friday before the cruise in South FL, impersonating an Uber driver. I was in town to stay with dad while my mother cruised with her girlfriends. The 4 septuagenarians arrived back from their Celebrity Madi Gras cruise on Friday afternoon. Most of the ladies couldn’t handle a suitcase anymore. And had it been just one suitcase, I wouldn't have worked myself into a sweat delivering them from the local Walmart where their bus dropped them, to their homes. And if I hadn't been in South Florida, I might have arrived at the right Walmart in the first place. But of course, being in Florida, there is a Walmart every 5 miles, on the exact same road! So, GPS IS FUTILE. Fortunately, cell phones work and I finally rendezvoused at the correct Walmart and found my 4 ladies sitting on their suitcases in the blazing hot south Florida sun. Let's just say I probably only got a 1 star rating for that ride! Jeff arrived at the airport at 8 PM. so after lugging the ladies suitcases into their homes, I went to RSW to pick up my second ride of the day. I couldn't help thinking, “tomorrow I will be paying people to do this for ME!
Boarding: was very smooth, we received an email that we could begin the boarding process as early as 10:30am, so arrived promptly at 10:30, were dropped with our bags at the porter, and whisked through security and check in and we were in the ship before 11 AM. Although we have Diamond loyalty status and expedited check in, this only applied to the RCL check in, and maybe saved us 15-20 minutes in line, pretty much everyone was boarding within 30 minutes of arriving, and they announced general boarding for everyone by the time we headed to the gangway.
Our duffle bag that we fill with water purchased and sealed in Fl and many many bottles of sun lotion was flagged for "contraband screening" but sailed through the naughty room with flying colors once it was discovered we weren't spring breakers smuggling but old people who need to hydrate and prevent sunburn! We knew this because a form note was placed in the bag about the inspection.
We made our way to the Solarium, the covered adults only pool, where we had our pick of seats, and enjoyed lunch at the Park Cafe there. It's advertised as snacks, but offers chopped salad mixed by the waiter, roast beef sandwiches, paninis and soup as well as bags of chips. Around 1:30, our cabin was open for occupancy. Ordinarily, luggage you check at the curb would be delivered to your door, but we had to fetch our own luggage from the hallway as it was all sitting there for quite a while, with no one delivering it.
Muster drill was held at 3:30. For those who haven't cruised before, the "muster drill" is a required safety briefing held before sailing where every passenger must report to their assigned life boat deck and hear about basic safety information. This is sometimes what gives so called mass market cruise ships (large ships that hold more than 1000 passengers) the reputation for being "crowded", since all passengers are trying to get to the same deck at exactly the same time! After this initial drill, nothing else going on during a cruise is required (except returning to the ship in port on time!) and it's also one of the few times you "feel" the ship is crowded, since the rest of the cruise, people are generally spread out doing lots of different things!
Our cabin was on deck 7, Cabin 7152 is a regular priced balcony cabin with a panoramic extra large balcony due to it's location at the rear (aft) of the ship. We like these cabins fro the extra space and views, even though they are generally noisier due to the engines being in the back of the ship and experience more motion than mid ship cabins. Similar large balconies can be found on the bumped out parts of the middle of ships.
Tips for picking a good cabin
- Look at the deck plans for the ship you choose, choose a cabin with other passenger cabins above and below it, beware of cabins above or below noisy lounges or dining areas or large suites that might host noisy groups.
- If you are worried about motion of the ship making you feel sick, look for a cabin in the middle of the ship and on the lower decks, where motion is less noticeable.
- A private balcony is nice, but not necessary! If your budget calls for an interior or port hole cabin, there are lots of places on deck where you can sit and enjoy the ocean. If your trip is on an ocean cruise with lots of ports of call, you wan't spend much time on a balcony anyway. If you have lots of sea days or plan to cruise to especially scenic places; Alaska or the Mediterranean, a balcony can be a nice way to start and end your days.
- Once you've selected a potential cabin, google the cabin number and ship. most likely another traveler will have posted an image or youtube video that will show you exactly what the cabin looks like. Don't trust cruise ship brochures and travel agent review sites; they generally use the same description for most cabins in a catagory without sharing the unique quirks about the actual cabin you want! This is the best way to find cabins with slightly larger balconies than standard, but be aware, they book up fast by people in the know!
A top to bottom tour of Rhapsody of the Seas
Rhapsody of the Seas is an older ship...given the rapid building of new and more elaborate ships with boardwalks and parks and moving capsules, any ship built 15-20 years ago is based on the the older model of dining rooms on one end, and a theater on the other separated by bars, casinos and shops in the middle. Rhapsody is based on a central "centrum" which was quite innovative in it's time, a large open circular lobby. This is a fun set up for some activities,since passing through on upper decks, one can get drawn into whatever activity is happening below!
(Click on any image to enlarge it)
Deck 11 Viking Crown Lounge
Deck 10 sports deck, jogging track, upper pool deck and kids clubs
Deck 9 Windjammer Buffet, pool deck, Solarium, Spa and Fitness Center
Decks 7 and 8 are passenger cabin decks
Deck 6 Broadway Melodies Lounge, Centrum Shops, Centrum, Giovanni's and Chop's Restarunats, Schooner Bar, Shall We Dance Lounge and Diamond Lounge
Broadway Melodies Lounge
Centrum and Shops
Schooner Bar and Specialty Restaruants
Shall We Dance Lounge and Diamond Lounge
Deck 5 Lower Level of the Broadway Melodies Theater, Guest Services and Shore Excursions, Casino, Edelweiss Dining Room, and outdoor promenade deck
Deck 4 Passenger Cabins, Booking Next Cruise, Computer Room and R Bar in the Centrum, lower level of the Edelweiss Dining Room
Decks 2 and 3 are passenger cabins
Tampa Sail Away and the Skyway Bridge: We enjoyed the sail away from our balcony since we had both port and aft views. This meant we couldn't see the bridge coming, but had a long view going away from it! The ship arrives there approximately 2 hours after leaving Tampa Bay. We left at 4:15 and arrived at the bridge about 6:15. It's not to be missed, so try to make dinner plans later to enjoy the sight if you sail from Tampa. Other US ports with dramatic not to be missed sail aways: Miami- with views of Miami South Beach and people waving and cheering from their condos and the beach. Fort Lauderdale- sea wall wavers and the mansions on the intercoastal waterway...be sure to look for the one with it's own "flowrider" surfing pool. San Juan PR- Usually disembarks at night and the sight of the forts dramatically lit are worth seeing. NY/NJ ports: Usually feature sailing by the bridges and Statue of Liberty.
Click on any image to enlarge it
Entertainment :We enjoyed the welcome show before dinner, a comedian, and he had a fresh take on the standard cruise toilet jokes, so that was refreshing. Every comedian on board will make fun of the toilet...when you use it, you will see why! Usually, the ship offers two shows a night- one earlier in the evening for the people dining late and a later one for people dining earlier. Most times you can attend either, or both, or none! There is no extra charge for the shows, but some larger ships do require you to book online before boarding, so you can only attend the shows for which you are booked. Almost all ships offer a daily planner (on our ship called the "cruise Compass") with all the shows and activities listed. You'd run yourself ragged trying to do it all, but bring along a highlighter in your luggage, and highlight the things you are most interested in. There is Cruise Director (CD, who works much harder than Julie McCoy ever did!) on our ship it was Dan Whitney, who went by DanDan (because everyone in entertainment needs a brandbrand) He works with a team team who plan and run every activity and show. The CD also books guest entertainers that vary from week to week. The most fun things are the shows that involve passenger participation. Long before "reality tv" became a thing, the cruiselines realized the best entertainment is often the humanity surrounding you!
The first day Cruise Compass is below- click to enlarge any page
After the show we went to Rock the Room game show, where guests had to guess the song based on a snippet, and it was a warm up for what looked to be the big event- Karoke. We didn't stay but the young people were getting themselves ready! We headed to the Viking Crown Lounge at the very top of the ship to dance. On past Royal Caribbean ships, I have complained that the DJ's play music from last century, and nothing current. Another complaint was that in order to avoid paying royalties, the DJ would play only a short snippet of modern songs, changing songs every 20-30 seconds and never completing a song. I loved that the DJ who had just boarded played songs from this decade, either Royal has changed what music they will pay for, or does this during spring break in order to play music that will resonate with their younger cruisers. In any case that was wonderful, since I've found listening to the same 70s and 80s songs on other ships to grow tiresome.
Another favorite for us is that Royal Caribbean always has a live bands on board, both guest bands, and a 1/2 dozen members of their standing orchestra to accompany the shows and play around the ship. Some ships have gone exclusively to recorded music.
Dinner and Dress Codes: We had MyTimeDining, which has been rebranded as "Flexible Dining" on Royal Caribbean. This means we can make reservations in the "included" dining room when we want to eat, or we can just show up and stand in line and be seated when we are ready to eat. Some ships only have this kind of flexible arrangement. others offer only set seatings Early (usually around 5:30 or 6) and Late (at 8 or 8:30) Royal Caribbean offers both set ups on two different decks. Most new cruisers worry about "dress codes" and dressing up in the dining rooms. On most large mass market cruises, the vibe is considerably more casual these days. While "dress up" nights are offered, they are more or less optional. Dress up if you like, or dress comfortably if you prefer. Most ships encourage guests in swim cover ups or shorts to use the buffet, but otherwise, most ships don't have anyone checking hemlines or for jackets like a middle school dance. Dress in what makes you comfortable!
Another option on most cruise ships is to pay for smaller "specialty restaurants", sometimes this is a perk your travel agent will give as a bonus. Usually there is a fee above and beyond what you've already paid- anywhere from $10-100 per person depending on the experience and any included liquor. Costs for this can add up quickly, so think about where you want to spend on board, the food included is usually more than adequate and ship that is feeding thousands isn't going to be able to offer gourmet dining, even in their specialty restaurants!
The dining room was a bit frazzled as it always is the first night, but it was still efficient and the food was better than I remembered on my last Royal Cruise, with fresher fish and seafood, and stronger flavors. The first night was the Mojo menu, which includes seafood spaghetti, pork chop and prime rib. The late seating was quieter, it looked like quite a few people were taking advantage of specialty restaurant first night specials.
And that is all the excitement of Embarkation Day...getting the safety briefing, sailing away from port, exploring the ship and maybe even making some new friends!! We headed to bed long before the last spring breaker called it a night!!
A fun time lapse of the Skyway Bridge
Day 2: Day At Sea
I always approach sea days with a bit of dread. I like to explore and a ship is a great way to explore without having to repack your bags every time you move. But some days you need to be moving, and unlike a car, you just can't pull over when you see something interesting. The cruise ships are trying to solve this problem by making things more interesting ON the ship! And boy, is it getting interesting!
Every day, usually the evening before, you'll get a program of activities for the next day left in your cabin. (click on any image to enlarge)
What to do on a sea day..and what NOT to do!
My overriding advice is to have fun, and NOT to get taken for a ride by the wallet...here are my tips for different activities.
- Sports and Fitness: Most ships have a fitness room, some also have elaborate sports decks with basketball, gold, rock walls, and ping pong tables. The cruise staff also runs dance classes, sunrise walks, and some ships feature on board 5 K races. (although its a lot of running in circles!) The good news is most fitness activities are included in your fare. Watch for specialty fitness classes offered by the spa, some of these include an added fee. Sometimes this can be noted with a $ in the activity schedule, but ask anytime someone asks for your cruise card!
- Spa and Health: Many ships are all in on the spa experience, with special spa cabins, decks, or day passes, but almost every ship has a spa. Booking these service on a sea day will always cost a bit more or be harder to appointments to get than waiting for a port day, when specials are offered. Hold on to your card (and remember it's directly attached to your wallet!) in the spa; prices are often more for basic services than what you pay at home, the estheticians will often do a hard sell to get you to upgrade treatments and buy products. Some ships carry a physician on board who will analyze your feet, teach weight loss classes and even do cosmetic procedures. Ask yourself if you think it's ok for your health to take medical advice and treatment from a stranger rather than your personal caregivers. Plus, the ship will take your cruise card, but not your medical card...you might have insurance coverage for some of the health advice the cruise will make you pay for!
- Cooking and Mixology Classes: Some ships offer cooking demonstrations (usually free) or classes (usually with an extra cost). Some ships have gone so far as to have passenger kitchen stations for these classes and offer a series taught by the chefs on board. Bar classes and tastings often have additional costs, and if they are free, expect to get the hard sell to buy liquor on board to take home with you (It will be held for you till after the cruise, and watch your customs "allowances" too!
- Trivia and game shows: There are no end to the games offered on board. Trivia is popular and easy to join, gather a team or join one, these usually free events are held in a lounge and can be good fun, especially if the weather is bad. Game shows exploit your fellow passengers with funny intrusive questions or actions. They are usually in good fun, but one year our 17 yo daughter was recruited to captain a team in a game that often involves some state of undress. We gave our assent, but told her and the cruise staff, at age 17 - the clothes stay ON! The more you have had to drink, they more careful you have to be...what happens at sea stays at sea, until it ends up on Youtube!
- Casino and BINGO: There is a reason that people joke about going to "make a donation at the casino"! Ships are under no obligation to follow gaming commission rules about odds like land based casinos, and you can bet they'll be in the ships favor, and probably even change based on the revenue the ship needs to make. BINGO and slots are gambling "lite", but again, it's considered paying for "entertainment", but it's best to decide ahead of time, how much you can afford to spend on that type of entertainment and walk away when its spent!
- Port and shopping lectures: On the smallest most destination focused ships these are interesting lectures given by experts. Sadly on mass market ships, these talks are usually given by a salesperson whose job it is to "sell" advertising to port shops on board in exchange for directing guests to the shops that participate in the "program". They are sometimes joined by the salesperson whose job it is to sell the ships shore excursions. At best, you'll get a little detail about what else there is to see and do in the port, at worst, it's a straight sales pitch. Same with cruise line provided port maps...usually the only useful unbiased info I find on one of these is the name of the port agent- who you could call if you miss the ship!
- Store Sales, raffles and extravaganzas!: Usually the shopping area of a mass market cruise ship will offer all kinds of "sales". Which are really just promotions of items at the price they want to sell the merchandise for. Remember, they will run this same "incredible deal" next week, and the next week, and well, you get the idea! Packaged in fancy packaging and presented in a shiny centrum shop, goods look luxurious, but try to remember what it would cost you at home. Could you get it for less at Walmart? The raffles and giveaways offer a low value trinket in exchange for your attention and to drive traffic into their shops. As always, my advice is to recall that your cruise card is directly attached to your wallet!
- Movies, Bands and Shows: These are usually free and entertaining. Occasionally, guests artists will offer their CD's for sale, but this is very low pressure! One of the best things about cruising is all the free musicians and singers who pop up all around the ship. Some of the included shows can be as elaborate as what you would pay $100 per person in Vegas or Broadway.
- Ziplines, Waterslides, and Bumper Cars, OH MY: Mass market cruise ships are constantly adding new entertainment features to grab attention in the media and offer something new to cruisers. Usually, these are worth a try just because of the "cool factor". They are usually free since they are marquis attractions for the ship. Because of their newness and popularity, I recommend checking these kinds of attractions early in the cruise, and early in the day (or at dinner time or when the ship is in port, if offered) Sometimes things break down or weather causes the attractions to shut down till they return to port and as more people discover them, the lines and waits can build up by the end of the cruise.
On a ship with lots of young people, you can have breakfast by yourself at 9 AM in the Windjammer (buffet) on a sea day and we did! The gym was nearly empty too! By 10:30 we were done with breakfast and our workout and I was ready to enjoy a facial at the spa, I enjoyed a comparably priced facial to my home spa, and said a firm no thank you to the proffered "eyelid mask" . This was my first time ever using the cruise ship spa and it was a very positive experience.
Ships Buffet: At lunch time we headed to the Windjammer Buffet, where we've found the breakfast and lunches to have a wide variety of food. On this ship we were impressed with the cooked to order egg stations, with a staff person writing names on the orders so you can wander to the rest of the buffet and return for your food without standing in a line just waiting. At lunch the cooking station turned into a burger or taco bar, and at dinner, made to order stir fry or noodle stations. The buffets on this class of ship are little confusing, no way "around" it, because of all the food stations are designed in concentric circles, but with no clear sense of direction, people are often at cross currents to one another. Once you've filled a plate, it's time to find a seat. Our strategy is usually to find a table and send one member of the party to get food, then the other...not the most relaxing way to dine, but the dining rooms are usually also open for a more relaxed sit down lunch too. We find on most ships the food quality is a bit better than a standard mega buffet. One thing you can usually expect is it ill be very fresh- the ship fills up it's larder once a week, and they have the numbers to get the quantities almost perfect every week, and standards of cleanliness are very high at sea- you'll be asked to use hand sanitizer every time you enter the buffet and numerous staff are checking for people returning with dirty plates or tongs that end up where they don't belong.
Generally, we use sea days on board as an excuse to get in a workout and relax. There are two things that make being at sea relaxing...the first is that your cell phone won't work out there! The second is that in desperation to fill the now empty phone checking hours, you can stare at the ocean going by, which is completely mesmerizing!
Formal Night: Generally on the first full night of a cruise, the Captain has a welcome party where guests will have to opportunity to meet him and have a picture taken. Often the other officers will be introduced and some low quality champagne may be passed around. Usually, this is also the "formal attire suggested" night. Again, as I mentioned in our casual culture, fewer and fewer people are dressing up for these evenings. Other people like the opportunity to get dressed up primarily because there are so few places where people get to dress up anymore. Except on the ships that cater to primarily older people or are known for their formality, these nights on a Caribbean cruise have become a mish mash of older women wearing their mother of the bride gowns, or "black slacks and a sparkle top", young women wearing "clubbing" outfits, and men in everything from a Hawaiian shirt to tuxedos.
I really feel that it's MY vacation, not a job interview, every passenger should wear what is comfortable for them, so long as it meets basic hygiene standards. Other people feel it's a sign of the end of civilization that people don't dress up anymore. Online forums spend days debating this issue. My best advice is do the research to find the ship that best matches your cruising style. Most of the mass market cruises advertise a more casual "its your vacation" flexibility. If you prefer a dignified, refined cruise, many of the smaller ships and some that focus on older passengers still hew to the "dress for dinner" ethic. The best way to find the right one, is to read reviews, look through the brochures, and ask your travel agent. While no one will throw you overboard for wearing the wrong thing (despite what trolls write on those online forums!) you'll be more comfortable on a ship that matches your style!
We decided to skip the big production show, which featured ballroom dancing and was not of interest to us, but instead went out dancing in many of the other live music venues! On this ship for music, you had a choice of a 4 piece dance band with a lead singer, a professional DJ, a two piece classical/ballroom dance duo, The ship's orchestra with multiple horns, a sing along piano player, or a steel drum pool side band. When one group takes a break, it's easy to move on to another venue and hear another group playing.
Day 3 Roatan, Honduras
Arriving In Roatan Honduras, a small island off the coast of Honduras. It sits along the Mesoamerican Reef, which has some of the best snorkeling in the Americas. As we arrived we could see how Texas oil money investments has led to recent changes in the development of the island. Whether this is good or bad depends on your point of view. Friends who visited years ago miss the quaint resorts and dirt roads, but our guide liked that tourism and home development had expanded the middle class and raised the wages of everyone on the island. While many Caribbean islands were developed decades ago, Roatan's growth is relatively new, with a boom happening in just the last 10 years. We found that even with the growth, the island maintains its local culture and charm.
We arrived at a port in Coxen Hole developed by our cruise line specifically for it's passenger ships. So our goal was to get out of the "disneyfied" port and into the island as quickly as possible! We had heard about a guide, Channin Boddin from social media reviews. Amazingly, Channin is an example of the new economy. His uncle owns a large tour company, and Channin worked for his uncle for a while, but went out on his own recently, growing his business by soliciting US investors, using social media to spread the word about the excellent customer service. Channin spent significant time in the US and has a good idea what American tourists are looking for when they call his growing company for a tour or fishing trip. He has a cadre of wealthy regulars who rent his properties and also takes cruisers out for day trips. Channin communicated well by email before the trip, customized our tour to meet our needs and was easy to find just outside the "official" port gates when we arrived. If you plan to spend some time in Roatan, be sure to contact Channin Boddin (click here) I think you will find, as we did, that he provides an excellent customized tour that will expose you to the sights and culture of the island, which is why when you search "tours Roatan" on google, his name pops up!
After joining Channin, we started out to visit some of the scenic areas of Roatan. Fairly quickly, we could see the homes built by the people who were running successful businesses or building second homes on the island. Our guide explained there are two distinct cultures on Roatan, those descended from the natives, now mixed with others and called "mestizos" and the Spanish Caribbean people who generally live in a different area, eat different foods and listen to different kinds of music.
(Left: former Mayor Jackson's mansions- the first mansion on the island) (Right: a typical neighborhood in the Spanish area.)
Channin showed us some of the recent shopping plaza developments (middle photo) and explained that a car dealer had recently started a car lot (right photo), because people can now afford to buy a car, many of which are used as taxis on the island for cruise passengers arriving at the two cruise line developed ports of Coxen Hole and Mahogany Bay (far left photo) That's not a cruise ship in the foreground of the first photo...although I bet you could get a good price on a suite, it's actually the wreck of the Alexandria, a banana and coconut freighter which sunk in 1981!
I was not aware what our next stop would be. We drove through beautiful French Harbor, and stopped at Daniel Johnson's Monkey and Sloth Hangout in French Cay. I had some misgivings about this attraction, that weren't all related to the owners unabashed love of the Pittsburgh Steelers! Usually, I avoid thee kinds of places because of my concern that animals are removed from the wild for photo opportunities. Neither monkeys or sloths are native to Roatan. I hadn't had time to research this facility, but after arriving, we did learn that it's actually a sanctuary for sloths that are orphaned or discovered after their habitat is burned on the mainland of Honduras. The sad fact is that rain forest habitat is being developed quickly in Central America, and when the developers find sloths, they share them with the owner of this sanctuary, who does open it up for photo opportunities. The monkeys, we were told, originally arrived as surrender pets. There are also several birds on the property. The staff appeared to be well informed, and very careful even while showing animals, but I chose not to hold or have a photograph with them because in my mind they are still wild animals. However, I recognize that people love this kind of attraction. I've been fortunate to see monkeys and sloths in the wild in the most remote areas; not everyone has that opportunity, and if rescued animals can be ambassadors to educate people about the species, that can be a good (if sometimes controversial) thing.
The sloths that weren't "on exhibit" with a handler, we free to roam around in the trees above the sanctuary. They didn't live in cages and we were told the owner occassionally gets calls from neighbors telling him one of his sloths has ranged far enough to get into a tree in their yard!
After the Monkey and Sloth Hangout, we enjoyed some overlooks overlooking the islands of French Key.
We then headed towards Sandy Bay, and went to where Channin keeps the boat he uses for snorkeling.
We made our way from the boat dock, which was docked at the private home of Channin's financial partner, along the coast of the West End.
Pack for a Purpose
Sometimes I travel to a place and have felt like I encounter incredible poverty. Sometimes, it makes it hard to enjoy myself, when I see the disparity between life on the island and life at the resort or cruise ship. Certainly, bringing your tourism dollars helps! But I also wanted to see if I could really do something else helpful. We discovered "Pack for a Purpose" a few years ago (PfP click here for more info or to find a country where you plan to travel) What I love about PfP is that the organization curates needs lists from non profits all over the world, and through partner foundations, often the charitable arm of large resorts, PfP encourages travelers to turn extra luggage space into space to carry items needed in those communities. Because each non-profit or NGO requests exactly what it needs, travelers can be sure what they bring will be useful and not a burden to the communities they visit. For instance, whenever I have donated to a charity through PfP I've been requested to remove plastic packaging, since trash removal can be a burden. Most communities will also request you don't bring candy, since most children don't have access to dental care.
I went to PfP's site before I traveled and determined that in Roatan, Familias Saludables (FS) had made a list of school supplies needed for their preschool. These could be left at Bananarama Resort, which partners with FS to connect travelers who want to donate or volunteer at the clinic and school. When I contacted Channin about a private tour of Roatan, one of the requests I made was that we be able to visit Bananarama with my collected supplies. I chose to collect school supplies with the help of my local woman's club, the GFWC Marlborough Junior Woman's Club, because we are group with lots of mothers and teachers who would know just what to get! My club rose to the challenge (as they always do!) and I was able to pack to large packing cubes full of crayons, pens, glue sticks, rulers, books, and flash cards requested by FS.
What i hadn't expected was that Channin would take us by boat to Bananarama since it was on the way to th places he wanted to take us snorkeling. I emailed Bananarama ahead and they knew we were coming that day. I felt like I was on the Survivor TV show, when Channin beached the boat on the West Bay Beach and we waded into shore to leave the supplies with Bananarama manager, Lindell.
Lindell cheerfully accepted our donation and assured us it would get to Familias Saludables. And we jumped back on the boat and headed out snorkeling spots on the MesoAmerican Reef with Channin.
We did two snorkel sites, off the boat with Channin, once he got us from the car to the baot, he also was joined by an assistant who helped operate the boat and was in the water with us to snorkel. Equipment was provided, and the snorkeling was some of the best we've ever seen!!
We also saw many large schools of fish!
We enjoyed the boat, and seeing the island from the water as well as by land on our tour with Channin Boddin. After returning the boat to the dock, we drove back to the ship with plenty of time to embark before heading to Belize.
Back on board Rhapsody of the Seas, there was still plenty going on!
After dinner in the dining room, we went to see one of the audience participation shows, called "Love and Marriage", based on the "Newlywed Game", that used to be on television. We've seen this show on dozens of ships over the 20 years we've been cruising, and it never gets stale, because it's always a new group of passengers and over the years, people are willing to "overshare" more than ever! This crowd didn't disappoint and we learned some nicknames for body parts, that I'm sure the gentleman's in laws, who also in the audience, probably could have lived with out knowing! ;-)
Day Four: Belize
It was un Belizable and I couldn't Belize it! or...When great guides tell bad jokes!
We arrived in Belize bright and early at 7 AM, the day was beautiful for an adventure, and we had an adventure planned! (Please pardon the quality of our photos in Belize...because of the nature of our activities we were using an underwater camera and an Iphone in an Overboard case. )
Types of Shore Excursions:
Ships excursions -
Most cruise lines offer shore excursions. These are often available on line before sailing, or can be purchased at the Shore Excursion Desk on board.
- You can charge them on your cruise card or use your credit card before sailing, you can often be the first off the ship for an early excursion
- You'll be given a full refund if the ship doesn't make the port, you are guaranteed to be returned to the ship on time or caught up to it at the cruise line's expense in the case of emergency
- The excursion has generally been vetted for basic safety and insurance
- Priority disembarkation, first off the ship in port
- You'll usually pay more than an independent excursion, as the cruise line will be taking their cut.
- You'll usually be with a larger group, although generally the more active the excursion (biking, snorkeling, kayaking) will usually have fewer participants than coach tours.
- Sometimes we've found the guides are not the same quality as those who people who run their own local businesses and rely on word of mouth to sustain their business.
Private excursions with local guides -
If you research the port, you can usually find reviews online of private local guides who will take you and your party or a small group of strangers on tour.
- Private guides can take you on a longer more inclusive tour for the same money as the ships 1/2 day tours, or do a 1/2 day for less.
- The group can be as small or as large as you like, we've often done private tours for the same cost as a ships excursion, or added a few fellow passengers to go with and saved money over a much larger ships excursion. You can find people share excursions by posting online on Cruise Critic on your ship's "roll call" of other passengers traveling the same time as you are.
- The guides themselves usually have a high level of hustle, since they are usually the owner or family of the owner, and rely on word of mouth (ie Trip Advisor) for good reviews to grow or sustain their business.
- The best ones will let you book ahead and are quick to communicate via email or messaging and are happy to customize your tour (as we found with Channin Boddin in Roatan)
- Because these guides aren't cruise line vetted, their equipment may not meet stringent safety standards the ship imposes (this can be good or bad...we wanted our 15 yo to be able to ride a Segway in St Martin, and with a private tour, she could, even though the ships tour had a 16 year old min.age restriction)
- If a small operator has a problem with a broken down car or boat, there are no guarantees you will get back on time or fleet of other vehicles to get you back in time. If you miss the ship, you are on your own. That said in more than 20 years of cruising and using private guides on cruises, we have never once come close to missing the ship!
- If the ship is late or misses port, you could lose your deposit or the tour could leave without you. My recommendation is look for private guides who work with ship passengers frequently, they will often not charge should you not make the port, and will monitor the ships arrival to make changes for pick up times without even having to contact them.
Shore excursion companies -
Shore excursion companies are a relatively new phenomenon, these are often the large companies that offer online excursions all over the world. Some companies that do this are Viatour and Context Tours (we have used Context Tours, read about our experiences here) Royal Caribbean just announced today they are forming their own private shore excursion company, GoBe (click here)
- You can often join a slightly larger group in port for cost savings, without having to do the leg work to form the group yourself
- They can cost less than ships excursions, and still be smaller groups or private
- Because they are larger companies, they usually offer safety vetting, easy customer services and full refunds should the ship miss port.
- There is no assurance about the quality of the guiding, the guides are contractors, and can be hit or miss.
- The same concerns for missing the ship apply for companies as for private guides.
Hiring a taxi or driver in port -
Nearly every port has a taxi drivers waiting just outside the main gates of the ship's port area, and they will negotiate a price with you and take you on the "standard" tour of their island, or to any place you wish to go.
- This can be the cheapest option, especially if you go in knowing what is standard and are willing to negotiate with the driver, and get them to compete over your business.
- The driver is almost always a local with good knowledge of the area and can customize your tour
- You have no idea what kind of tour you'll get, whether your driver speaks English well, and if his car is safe. Also, if he's unimaginative, you'll be in a long string of taxis seeing all the same over crowded "sights".
- Some of these drivers can steer you towards restaurants and stores run by their friends or relatives, even if you complain on line about the tour, there really isn't a "brand" to damage, so they just pick up another passenger on the next ship. It's hit or miss, sometimes you can get a great guide who is on his or her way to becoming a top notch guide or the BIL a better tour company fired because he's so awful!
- be sure to agree on a price for the whole tour, out and return, make sure it's written down on a piece of note paper so there is no "lost in translation" moment when it's time to return to the ship.
When cruising on a mass market line, we rarely use the ships scheduled shore excursions for many of the "con" reasons above. We hadn't done a cruise ship excursion on Royal Caribbean in several years, and because Belize is a "tendering" port (the ship anchors outside of the port instead of docking and transports passengers ashore in small boats), we decided to book a ships excursion for cave tubing and zip lining. This assured we would get priority for tendering in the morning, that the adventure activities had been "vetted" for safety and insurance, which seems important for zip lining! Since the adventures occur a good hour long bus ride away from port we could feel confident of not being left behind. These seemed like good reason to take a cruise ship excursion, so we signed up for Cave Tubing and Ariel Trek BE 15
This was an excellent choice! Our Guide, Peter and the minibus driver, Sousa, were excellent on every level- even that bad Belize puns were lots of fun, "you better Belize it!" This was by far one of the best ships excursions we have ever taken. Competition is tight for guiding jobs with the cruise lines and it showed in how hard Peter worked to educate and take care of his passengers during our tour. Not only was he funny (and puny!) he took our safety seriously and managed a group of 20 odd spring breakers and assorted older people who thought they could keep up with them (i. e. US) The Cave tubing and zip lining and typical Belizian lunch were excellent, but Peter and his excellent guiding put the trip over the top!
Our drive out to the caves and ziplines was about an hour from the Belize City Port. As we rode on the "Western" road with our fellow adventurers, it occurred to us, that we were the oldest people on the bus! I'm not exactly sure when the change happened, but we used to be amongst the youngest passengers on the ship, and here on our spring break cruise we found ourselves old enough to be most of our fellow travelers parents! Would we be able to keep up? We had a day of hiking, tubing and ziplining ahead!
Below are photos driving through the city and out to the jungle.
We arrived at the site for the Cave Tubing and Aerial Trek zip lining, being high season, it appeared some one had kicked over an anthill! Multiple buses and tours were there, people milling around getting gear and while it looked like utter chaos, it was actually a very well organized operation, where guides had time slots for their groups, and Peter did an excellent job getting us geared up and through all our activities with water guides on the river and aerial guides on the zipline. We even had time for a typical Belizean lunch of chicken, rice and beans.
Gearing up included renting water shoes (if you didn't bring your own) and getting outfitted with a helmet with headlamp, PFD vest and inner tube. On our tour, and most of the cave tubing experiences require you carry your tube about 1/2 mile along jungle paths and wading through the shallows of the river to get to the put in area. Then the tubing guide will attach all the tubes and direct the cluster of tubes through the caves pointing out interesting things with his spotlight.
Scenes along the river
Because we floated back to where we started, we didn't need to hike back with our tubes as far. We took all our water gear off and used the large locker rooms to change into our zip lining dry clothes.
So how did we do? Well, let's just say, while the young people slept off their sun burn and coconut rum drinks they purchased after our adventures, we stayed awake and joked with our guide Peter on the way home!
Once we got back on board, there was still a whole 4 page list of things to do on board! We didn't have much left in the tank after being out on adventures with a bus full of college kids, so we enjoyed a quiet dinner at the "noodle bar" in the Windjammer buffet and some dancing in the Centrum before calling it a night.
Day 5: Costa Maya (or um, maybe not!)
Big swells and an unfavorable docking position made docking challenging when we arrived at Costa Maya amid 10 foot swells and high winds. Jeff and I often watch the ship docking in the morning, it's one of the reasons we enjoy balcony cabins! On this morning, we could see the crew struggling to get the dock lines set as the ship bobbed 10 or more feet above and below the concrete pier. Despite being tied up, the gangway could not be safely set and the Captain made the announcement that it was not safe for Rhapsody of the Seas to dock in Costa Maya. The tears and crying were instantaneous, and that was just the crew; who would be stuck with us all on board! Just kidding! Most passengers recognized that the Captains first duty is the safety of his passengers and crew and were understanding of the itinerary change. The 8 and 12 year old boys we saw at breakfast who were already in their swimsuits and had planned a day at the massive water park (in the top photos, see the "Mayan temple" in the distance on the right side...this is the water park!) The boys had looked forward to the water park as the highlight of their cruise! It was close enough to see, but they would not get there. I felt a little sad for them!
Luckily, DanDan the cruise director, is very good at his job and within 90 minutes of the itinerary change, he had a new daily schedule planned, printed, and distributed in passenger cabins. Lots of activities that were not usual;y offered on port days were added and the pools were busy. Everyone seemed to have a positive attitude about the change and had another fun day aboard ROS!
The plans for a day in Costa Maya...
And the quick change plans for a Sea Day when docking proved too dangerous!
Day 6 Cozumel- A day spent trying to find a parking spot...for a very large ship!
We arrived in Cozumel and were immediately informed that due to a disabled Celebrity ship in port that wasn't able to leave the day before, the captain would not have a spot to dock Rhapsody of the Seas. There would be a short window in the morning when ROS would dock at a Carnival dock to allow the passengers with shore excursions to leave the ship, then around 9 AM, the ship would move back out into the harbor and use it's own (very small) tenders to transport people for the remainder of the day.
It was a fairly terrifying morning...high winds meant the small tenders (the ship's life boats) were bobbing around and when the crew tried to secure our tender, we heard a loud POP, and a crew person was hit in the leg by the cleat which had ripped off the side of the boat, pulling fiberglass right off the tender! The second time was a charm, and we managed to be secured and leave the tender. My thought at the time was that if everyone on board had to return by these same tenders, it was going to be a very long afternoon! Later we learned that a new friend, a retired firefighter who was using a cane, went into the water trying to disembark his tender, and was only saved from serious injury when a quick thinking Guest Services crew person, who also happened to be riding the tender, jumped out and used his legs to hold the tender apart from the dock until our friend could be rescued from the water. I can only assume that it was due to the training that ALL crew get in case of emergencies that allowed him to respond so quickly and keep that passenger safe. The captain even acknowledged him at the farewell show and allowed all of us to applaud his heroism!
For more information about our ideas for Cozumel shore excursions, click on our post here
We decided to take an 11 AM ships excursion to Chankanaab Park. Our original plan was to go independently, but with 10 ships in port and a late start due to the tendering operation. we worried the park would reach capacity to independent visitors, and booking a last minute ships excursion would ensure our entrance into the park. Our excursion- Spectacular Shore Snorkel and Tequila Tasting Tour, we chose it because it was the cheapest option that included admission and transportation. It's an auspicious name...and despite the fact we don't drink tequila, we were hopeful it would live up to the name. The Chankanaab park is a beautiful facility with plenty of activities and we did find the snorkeling to be pretty spectacular given the huge crowds of people on the snorkel trail.
The park offers multiple beach areas, a couple of restaurants, a snorkel trail and water sport rentals, botanical gardens, crocodile garden, dolphin, sea lion and manatee activities, a trail of ruins displayed from other regions in Mexico. There are lots of other diversions including the tequila tasting area, where you can see how tequila is made and try the different kinds of tequila, which are also for sale.
After snorkeling, we left the tour to their tequila tasting, and decided to visit the botanical gardens and the trail with Mayan ruins. Most of the Mayan art was not originally in the park, but was brought there from other parts of Mexico. Unfortunately, the artwork only had titles and origins, and little explanation, when I go back to Chankanaab, I will try to get a good guide to take us through the ruins and explain the history and significance of them. Speaking of guiding, we found the guides we used in Chankanaab, Jean and Chucho, to be very good. They were able to manage a group of about 16 of us through several activities and keep track of everyone, while allowing us plenty of time on our own. Jean even offered an extra activity, and made guacomole for his group!
The tour ended with the sea lion show, which is included with admission and offered 2-13 times per day.
After our tour, our guide arranged a taxi van to transport us back to the ship. We did a little power shopping, I had a few pieces of silver costume jewelry I wanted to look at and I was able to purchase 3 Mexican blankets for $10 to use for yoga classes. They were smaller than standard, and not 100%cotton, but the price was right!
Fortunatey, by 3 PM another ship had left port and ROS finally had a parking spot! This saved everyone a lot of pain and suffering trying to get back on board. Although the winds had settled, the spring breakers had taken full advantage of tequila tastings, Mexican beer and the fun at Margaritaville, and some of them had trouble negotiating a pier, much less a tender!
Once safely back on board, we spent the afternoon watching people return from port from our balcony. This is a very enjoyable activity and it was especially nice because Rhapsody was backed into the pier, so we had a front row seat to the parade! We had an early dinner and caught the 8:30 PM Piano Man production show; Elton John, Billy Joel and music from other piano greats with dancing and singing with the Royal Caribbean Singers and Dancers.
But the most terrifying part of the day was ahead...we returned from the late night comedian to find this pile of horror carefully arranged on our bed by our stateroom attendant! Luggage tags and a customs forms can only mean one horrible thing...the cruise is coming to an end!
Day 7 Sea Day
Our last day on our spring break cruise was a much needed sea day...it's not really possible for us to keep up with kids 1/2 our age, but we tried, and we knew we needed this last day to recover!
Day 8: Disembarking in Tampa
Rhapsody of the Seas arrived in Tampa early. We had cleared the Skyway bridge late the previous night in order to avoid any morning fog that would prevent the ship from being able to pass under the bridge.
After checking in at the Marriott Waterside, we took a walk along the Tampa Riverwalk. This recently developed area hosts miles walking and bike paths, large scale festival venues, the Tampa Art museum, boat rentals, restaurants, bars, and a conference center.
Ulele is well loved for it's Riverwalk views and native inspired cuisine, including carrot chips and their own house made ice cream. Even on a busy Saturday, we were able to score a pre show table and enjoy the sunset show before our show at the Straz Cnter, a short stroll away.
Of course, it really depends on the port where your cruise ends, but here are some ideas for ending your cruise on a high note, possibly enjoying another day of vacation, or at least making the most of the hours before your flight home!
1- Check your itinerary before booking flights. Be sure that the airport you choose to fly out of is really located near your port. Sometimes, there is a smaller regional airport closer to your cruise port than the major airport. Or you might find you need to pre arrange transportation over some distance to get to the main airport. Most cruise lines offer transfers to the airport and that can be a good option. But be sure to research your options. Sometimes a taxi or ride hailing app can be cheaper than the ships transfer for 2 people! Be sure you know how long that transfer will take and build in the time you need before your flight. Usually, the documents you receive from the cruise line will suggest the earliest time you can expect to fly based on needing to collect your luggage and pass through customs and immigration after leaving the ship.
2- Take the pressure off rushing to the airport by staying overnight in the disembarkation You might find that the disembarkation port has plenty to do, we found that to be true in Tampa. We were able to extend our vacation by booking a hotel room on Saturday and by booking an early flight on Sunday, we enjoyed Saturday night out on the town! Some ports are destinations themselves and we plan to extend our vacation with a few days in ports like Old San Juan, PR or Rome, Italy. With so many people arriving in town the same day, sometimes hotel rooms can be expensive, I like to check online to see if there are any specials offered for cruisers at local hotels. If hotels are too pricey, see our next tip...
3- Lots of connections to make? When a cruise ship gets in too late make all the connections you need to get home, you don't have to stay in the expensive port city with all the people you sailed with! You can start your trip, arrive in one of your less expensive connection cities and book an inexpensive airport hotel for the night there. After one cruise, I needed to transfer from the port to the main city in Costa Rica, and then fly to Florida. Without a direct flight to the city I needed to get to, rather than stay overnight in a pricey Costa Rica hotel during the high season, I flew to Atlanta, stayed in an inexpensive airport hotel and made my way to my Florida city early the following morning!
4- Late flight? Look for luggage storage services. Sometimes, the time the ship pulls into port is too late to plan the early flights, but the flights available leave you with a lot of time to kill in port. While that can leave you time to explore, it also leaves you dragging your luggage around with you! Here are some ideas for what to do with your luggage. These days, most airports will not allow you to "store" luggage, and the trip to and from the airport can eat up a lot of your touring time before the flight, as well as be expensive with multiple transfers. The good news is that in many ports, there are businesses who will stash your luggage in exchange for your dining or visiting there. In Tampa, I saw advertisements that a ticket to the Florida Aquarium includes free luggage storage. With the aquarium withing walking distance of the port, this is an excellent option and while I'm sure the aquarium is an excellent diversion, you don't have to tour the aquarium to leave your bags there! A quick google search or reading forums on the ports you plan to visit will usually yield a few options for luggage storage, whether a restaurant or tour, that you can take advantage of during the day.
5- Late Flight? Book a cruise line excursion that includes an airport transfer. The cruise lines know that passengers have late flights and will offer excursions that allow you to store your luggage (often right under the bus) and enjoy a tour or activity in the port city and then transfer you to the airport. The disadvantage is that these will still usually require you to be at the airport well in advance of your flight, since they need to get everyone back for a variety of flight times.