One of the benefits of having grown up children, and a job where I get frequent chunks of time off, is that Gail and I can take spontaneous trips. We often take day trips and short trips of two to five days. But this time, with one week off, we decided to schedule a last minute cruise! We gave ourselves about one week to organize things and pack. I worked all that week, so most of the organizing and packing fell on Gail. But how fun!
We found a cruise going to the exact places we had been dreaming of visiting, and on Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas, one of the largest and most spectacular cruise ships in the world!
Of course, at such a late date, all the ocean view cabins had already been taken, and we were going to be happily satisfied with an inside cabin. Gail said we wouldn’t be spending much time in our dinky cabin anyway. But we were nicely surprised to find an inside cabin with a view to the ship’s incredible Promenade!
From home, thanks to the wonders of the internet, we were able to sign all the contracts and waivers, saving ourselves the time and hassle of having to do it later on board. We were also able to explore online the various excursions that were available at each port of call, and to sign up and pay for each. Again, a huge saver of time and hassle. Plus, knowing about our planned excursions helped to build the excitement of anticipation.
So, after my work day on Saturday, Feb 1, we quickly finished packing and drove six hours to Savannah, GA, where we spent the night. The following morning we drove the last four hours to Port Canaveral, FL, to catch our ship. I had also figured out the parking and paid for it online before arrival. We used Park Port Canaveral, a service of the local Radisson, and I can recommend it highly. It was well organized, and shuttles run every 15 minutes from there to your ship. It works best if you pay for it online before you get there.
We were dropped off at the pier, directly underneath our towering ship! Attendants took over our luggage, which had the colorful Royal Caribbean tags I had printed out at home, complete with ship name, deck and cabin number. (We registered too late for the cruise to receive real tags by mail from Royal Caribbean.) We were then pointed to the well-organized maze of security and check-in procedures. It all went smoothly. BTW, we could not have done this if we did not already have active passports. I highly recommend that every US citizen have an active passport. You never know when you might have to leave the country in a hurry! LOL
So we boarded the ship and two hours later our 4,200 passengers and 1,400 crew set sail! It was a thrill to leave port, to hear the loud blast of the horn and feel the vibration of the engines! After these winter months, it was a sheer pleasure to smell/taste/breathe the salty sea air, and to feel the warm breeze on my skin! Our 7-day itinerary was to include stops at Labadee, Haiti; Falmouth, Jamaica; George Town, Grand Cayman; and Cozumel, Mexico. Our weather was to be a perfect 85-90 degrees, without rain for the entire week! And it all went as planned!
Our first full day was “at sea”, as it took the ship that long to reach the western Caribbean. That gave us time to catch our breath, explore the ship, exercise, and to get a little sun. (It was already 75 degrees in FL, and of course it became progressively warmer as we headed south.) As expected, we found the ship to be absolutely magnificent! If you are interested, you can get a detailed idea of the ship, deck by deck, here at the Royal Caribbean Freedom of the Seas web site.
Our first stop was in Labadee Haiti, which Royal Caribbean calls its own “private island”. That means they own the property and have developed it for the sole use and enjoyment of their cruising guests.
We were greeted by a parade of jet skiers, promoting the various activities to do on the island.
We did not plan an extra excursion for that day, wanting to use it as our only lazy-day-at-the-beach. But had we wanted to, we could have partaken in all sorts of beachy adventures such as jet skiing, parasailing, kayaking, zip lining, roller coasting, and more! The Freedom of the Seas staff put on a great lunch on the beach for us, no small feat for 4,200 passengers! All in all, a day of relaxation at a beautiful and safe beach was just the right way to start the trip!
Here’s a shot of Freedom of the Seas, docked in Labadee. Look at those beautiful Caribbean waters!
After cruising for the evening and overnight, we awoke the following morning to find ourselves docked in Falmouth, Jamaica.
Falmouth is on the north shore of Jamaica, between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. We easily found our way to the start of our planned excursion to Dunn’s River Falls and Dolphin Cove.
The one hour drive from our ship to Dunn’s River Falls in Ocho Rios was interesting. We had an entertaining and informative tour guide. The country is naturally beautiful, with lush greenery, mountains to 7,000 feet, and of course the Caribbean Sea. It is blessed with a plethora of natural resources. The people lead simple lives, though, and the buildings along the way were generally humble.
The people we met were full of life, exuberant, colorful, and friendly! I’ll also mention that compared to the last time I was in Jamaica, this time I felt safe.
Climbing up Dunn’s River Falls against the rushing waters is a classic thing to do when visiting Jamaica. I had done this many years before, and enjoyed it just as much this time around. The only difference was that it was much more crowded this time, probably because of the number of people coming from our own cruise ship. It was a first for Gail, and it was really fun sharing her anxious excitement! They took a picture of us, but it sucked so we didn’t buy it. They also took video, but we didn’t feel it was worth $40. We plan to keep and enjoy our vivid memories!
If interested, here is a google search for images of Dunn’s River Falls.
We were then driven to nearby Dolphin Cove, for lunch and presumably a closeup with dolphins. It was okay, but somewhat of a disappointment. It had a slight tourist trap element to it, but redeemed by the presence of dolphins, stingrays and sharks in the water, and a variety of birds and other animals in sizable enclosures on the property. If you know us, you know we had a blast with the birds! But we didn’t get to swim with the dolphins. That was a different excursion, which would have excluded going to the Dunn’s River Falls. But no problem, mon! We had fun! Here is a pic to prove it!
George Town, Grand Cayman
You should not be allowed to visit the Caymans and Cozumel without planning to snorkel or scuba, IMO. So, since we planned to visit Mayan ruins during our stop in Cozumel, our day in Grand Cayman was our time for ocean activities. What a great day this turned out to be!
Stingray City is a famous spot on a shallow sand bar just off of Grand Cayman. Stingrays gather in this area in large numbers, attracted by squid treats provided by the crews of many tourist boats. When we arrived in the area, we jumped in the water and had the surreal experience of being surrounded by many stingrays, large and small, swimming all around us, rubbing against us, even swimming between our legs! At one point we were able to hold one from underneath, and to kiss one “for good luck!” The look on Gail’s face and her squeals were worth the whole trip!
After a great fun time with the stingrays, the boat then took us to a shallow part, approximately 8-12 feet deep, of the world famous Cayman Islands barrier reef for snorkeling. I have many memories of snorkeling in this area, several times over the years, since I was in my middle teens. Certainly the natural beauty of the living reefs, colorful fishes, and crystal clear Caribbean waters are enough for anyone, but for me there is the added bonus of vividly recalling past memories with family.
We spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying a quiet beach.
Our next port of call was Cozumel, an island just off of the Caribbean side of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. I know this area fairly well, also having been there on several occasions over the years. But it was Gail’s first time. We decided to take a ferry to the mainland and then a tour of the nearby Mayan ruins in Tulum.
The first time I was in Tulum, I believe it was 1970, there was no road into the place. The excavations and restorations had not been completed. There was no protection of this important archeological site. I remember climbing up and around all the ruins (“las piramides” as we used to say in Spanish) with my brother. I remember the incredible view of the Caribbean Sea from this location, and felt a spooky connection to people long ago who had obviously appreciated that same view 800 years ago. It was desolate. The first time I was there with my family of origin, we were the only people there.
Today, there is a four lane highway from Playa del Carmen (the beach town to where the ferry crosses over from Cozumel) to Tulum. Countless tour buses take this road every day. I suspect hundreds of thousands of people visit these ruins yearly. The site is now well excavated and decently restored. It is very well protected. No one is allowed to climb up and around the ruins, as my brother and I did years ago. But my old memories and feelings remain, as does the incredible view of the Caribbean Sea. I’m really glad to have re-experienced this place with Gail, and I’m glad she said she enjoyed it very much.
Afterwards, we spent a short hour on the lovely Akiin Beach before having to bus back to Playa del Carmen, and then ferry back to Cozumel to catch our ship before it again set sail. It was yet another great day!
The final day of the cruise was again all at sea, covering the distance back to Port Canaveral, FL. We certainly weren’t ready for this wonderful trip to end! We spent the day reading, exploring parts of the ship we hadn’t even seen yet, and making preparations for deboarding the following day. Here are a few images in and about Freedom of the Seas:
It would be impossible to explain how it feels to live a week on this magnificent ship. You’ll just have to try it yourself!
The bummer is that it eventually comes to an end.
Well, this has been a long post. But I have more to say, so I’ll save it for part two.