Monday, January 7, 2013

Cruise control

Our extended family has taken two 7-day New Year’s cruises in rapid annual succession out of Galveston (last year and this year).  While this is not the style of vacation preferred by my outdoorsy husband and I, cruising can be a convenient option for large groups like ours, which is characterized by a seven-decade age spread. 
There are a number of websites in which a person can become mired in the minutiae of cruise reviews and details.  Cruise Critic has reportedly risen to the top as a source for information exchange, but it's commercial, so beware (to my way of thinking, the user review boards are the most valuable part, but I don't know if they are culled in any way). 

Rather than analyze our two cruises to death, I thought I’d pass along some general observations and humorous anecdotal lessons learned.  
Bottom line in case you want to skip all these words and maybe skip the pictures, too:  If you are an active person more concerned with the quality of the cultural experience than with endless food bingeing, self-indulgent trinket-buying, and mindless passive entertainment, pick your cruise based on the ports of call that it visits, rather than based on the identity of the cruise line or the ship.  And plan your excursions in advance with the assistance of independent reviews.  If instead you are into the whole cruise drinking and gambling and sunbathing entertainment mentality, I don’t have any advice for you, because I have no experience with those facets of it. 
OK - now for the longer version, with slide show.

Our first trip was on the Carnival Magic, and it was scheduled only a couple of months after Magic first moved to Galveston, so both the ship and its crew seemed very fresh to us.  This is a pic of the Magic moored in Galveston last week.  We found that both the food and the food service were better on the Magic, which surprised us because Carnival has a reputation of being a low-rent district (and in fact the stateroom charges were significantly lower than Royal Caribbean’s (RC’s) corresponding charges).
Our second trip was on RC’s Mariner of the Seas, here shown moored off the coast of Belize a few days ago.  I took this pic from a tender, but more on that further down in this post. 

Carnival’s check-in process was an absolute nightmare, in my opinion.  There was no place to wait indoors, so we stood outside in line for almost two hours before even making it to the security screeners in the Port of Galveston Terminal 1 building.  It was so cold outside that the terminal staff had to pull families with babies and senior citizens out of the line and cut them in front, because the very old and the very young simply couldn’t bear the cold for that long. 

RC’s check-in process in Terminal 2 was much more humane, with easy access to a climate-controlled interior waiting area with comfortable seating.  When you’re wrangling five children, these things are important.  However, RC’s check-out process was an absolute nightmare (in my opinion).  It took 1.5 hours of shuffling through the line simply to progress from our stateroom to the US Customs desk in the terminal.  Whereas checking out of the Magic had been comparatively easy. 
Sorry if font size and spacing issues are manifesting - that's Blogger's fault.
Here’s a pic of Magic’s central entertainment deck, shown at night, obviously.  I found the design to be sleek and less cluttered than its RC counterpart. 
Here is Mariner’s entertainment deck, which I found to be more claustrophobic.  There wasn’t as much open space here for little kids to bounce around like they must do.  Mariner seemed to have less of a family emphasis (that flying saucer looking thing with all the windows above the deck is reserved for the consumption of alcohol).  However, Mariner did have more swimming pools than Magic, I think. 
Boarding and security processes aside, getting to the embarkation entails a mere 30 minute drive down the freeway for us!  And a cruise ship offers a great vantage point for gawking at Galveston.
Galveston Ship Channel.  I began my latest career phase on this waterway twenty years ago, so I am fond of its unique industrial beauty. 
Seeing Galveston Island for the first time in the rear view mirror… wow.  It seems so much more fragile and vulnerable than it does when one’s feet are planted on the ground of it.  It’s just a tiny wisp of sand barely clinging to the rim of a vast and temperamental body of water. 
Our Magic cruise last year visited three destinations on the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico:  Costa Maya, Cozumel, and Progreso.  I don’t recommend this sequence because the activity options for  two of those ports of call are so limited (in my opinion). 
This is the stunning view upon approaching Costa Maya, but guess what?

There’s basically no walking access to anything outside of the Carnival-owned pier and trinket area.  You are not permitted to set a toe on the beach shown above because those surrounding areas are private property.  You can wander into the little town on the other side of the cruise wall, but there’s not much there.
With relatively little easily-accessible activity to choose from at this location, we splurged and enrolled three of our older kids in this dolphin encounter, which turned out to be a better quality experience than we expected.  These dolphins seemed genuinely happy and well cared for, believe it or not.  But note that there were two cruise ships docked on the same day in what is really just a small commercialized area.  It was terribly congested. 
Progreso is mostly an industrial port accessible by a long man-made dike which extends to the mainland (analogous to the Texas City Dike).  The only way out of there is by motor vehicle.  This is a pic of the port at night.  Once again, I have a professional fondness for industrial ports, but I don’t necessarily wish to be looking at one from my cruise ship balcony. 
From Progreso, we did a cruise-sponsored excursion to the Mayan ruins at Uxmal, which was definitely worth it.  But holy crap, it was a long drive.  Doesn’t look that way on this map, but it was grueling.
I don’t know what any of the other regional Mayan ruins are like, but the UNESCO World Heritage site Uxmal is wonderful.  Worth the discomfort of a local bus for a few hours (has there ever been any such thing as a decent Mexican bus?!).  Nota bene:  The prices in the Uxmal visitors’ center gift shop are in pesos, not dollars, and there are some really good deals to be had in there.  Actual arts and crafts, not just tourist trinkets and mass-produced junk. 
Cozumel is a must-do for all western Caribbean cruises, apparently.  They all seem to stop there, and both our Carnival and RC cruises did.  On our Magic trip, we did one of those two-reef snorkel excursions, which was good for kids with limited swimming abilities (the vendor provided floatation devices as well as other equipment).  The water is really this exact color, which is worth seeing just for the sake of seeing it…
… but otherwise, Cozumel is mostly a gigantic parking lot for cruise ships, in my opinion.  This year, there were two Carnival ships (one of the pair can’t be seen from this angle), two RC ships, including their monstrous-class vessel shown here as the filling in this cruise ship sandwich…
…and three or four more we couldn’t identify from a distance. Do the math on this one – that’s tens of thousands of cruisers all squeezed into this one small alcohol-ridden area at the same time – I personally see no sense in participating in the likes of that. If you don’t book a good excursion away from the crowds, you might not even want to bother disembarking at this port. 

Years ago, I traveled to Cozumel and at the recommendation of a close friend, spent the extra money to stay at the Presidente Intercontinental hotel. If I were doing a non-extended-family trip, that’s the only place to which I would return. Beautiful hotel, great service, private beach and extensive grounds, away from the crowd. I would rather go to a place like that one time than stay three times at some budget hotel swarming with party-pig tourists. When I was at the Presidente in 2000, they had guys with machine guns guarding the front entrance to it. And my child, at that time a toddler, had a section of the private beach to herself.

On our Mariner cruise into Cozumel, I booked a horseback riding excursion, but they moved it three hours earlier in the day without making the change clear, and as a result, we missed it. I confirmed multiple times with the sales agent that she booked the correct cruise, but she neglected to mention the rescheduling. They gave us a full refund because of the confusion that this caused, but we were still left without an excursion that day. Even if you go with a cruise-sponsored excursion, you can’t be too careful in booking these things because of the last-minute stuff that can pop up, I have learned. 
  Whereas the Carnival cruise went to Mexico only, the RC cruise went to three different countries.
Our first Mariner port of call was the island of Roatan, off the coast of Honduras.  We started with a self-guided tour through the poverty-ridden local town.  There were numerous vendors all selling tourist trinkets and I was almost unsuccessful in locating the only thing I intend to buy: authentic arts and crafts made by individuals to whom a fair sum of money returns (to the extent that I can verify this in a third-world country).  I don't feel compelled to single-handedly save the world, but I believe that Fair Trade commerce is mutually beneficial
Well, I did buy this mass-produced little turned wooden container from an old woman in the street.  It was not an authentic handicraft, but she seemed to be working hard and asked for four dollars.  I gave her five. 
I did find what I went into the town to look for:  A Christian couple selling authentic local craftwork for which the money went back to the craftspeople, each of whom had a little shelf space in the tiny store.  I bought a hand-made bracelet for my daughter and a copy of this book, which I highly recommend.  It tells the real story of poverty on Roatan, with no Walt Disney ending to it.
See for additional merchandise and the stories behind these artists and this writer.
We booked a canopy tour excursion for seven of us through Caribe Sky, which did an excellent job.  It was my first time zip-lining and I did feel that their safety standards were good.  We had with us our three oldest children ranging from eight to fourteen years old, and I was not worried about them, even when they zipped alone.  This is one of their promotional photos which was on the photo CD that they sold us for ten bucks, which has to be the best price in the Caribbean (you don’t want to know what the Costa Maya dolphin encounter photo CD cost… well, maybe you do: I believe it was about $120, but the dolphin-kissing photos were really well-done). 
Caribe Sky had ten or twelve lines, the longest of which was almost two thousand feet.    I myself would be satisfied with a quiet observant walk through the jungle, but young people today always expect more whiz-bang in everything they do.  That’s the “new normal”, where the focus is on somewhat passive entertainment (strapped like a ham shank to a glorified clothesline??) rather than active interactional experience (walking under one’s own power, contacting, discovering).  This jungle looked beautiful but I was struck by the eerie silence of the entire place.  I heard only one bird in about three hours.  I don’t know why this was.  Was it the depth of the winter season?  Or have Roatan's poorest people eaten all the jungle creatures by now? 
Our next stop was Belize, which had to be reached by tender.  The security wall separating the city from the cruise pier was hilarious, with street vendors soliciting customers via the squeezing some message and/or body part through every available orifice, both above ground…
…and at ground level (this view being a view from outside the secure area as the peddler is petitioning from beneath the gate). 
We ventured outside the envelope of cruise-sponsored excursions and hired a randomly-encountered taxi vendor named Carlos Lopez to take ten of us on a tour of the city and then to a small private man-made beach / bar / gift shop area called Cucumber Beach (again, not my choice of venue, but we had small toddlers with us and they needed a small shallow area in which to splash).  We negotiated $80 for Mr. Lopez’s services and he required only $20 of it up front, which made us comfortable that we were not going to get stood up by him.  The beach itself cost about $10 for each adult to enter, less for each child. 
I felt quite comfortable with Mr. Lopez.  He was a good driver and an absolute walking encyclopedia of Belize’s history and culture.  He pointed out all sorts of features that I would never have noticed and told many stories with humor.  For me, that's what the experience of a place is all about.  Not going ashore and sipping a margarita in yet another mindless bar.  I want to learn something of the people and the place.  Otherwise, I’ve traveled all that way for nothing. 
Mr. Lopez asked us to recommend him on Cruise Critic, which I will.  Here’s another example of the internet connecting people and empowering individuals – cutting out the middle men, who almost always take the lion’s share of the money.   How many middle-class American families would jump off a cruise tender in Central America and put their lives in the hands of the first local van driver they encounter in the street?  Not many – it’s arguably not the safest course of action.  But if you can vet the guy on the internet, it’s a total game-changer. 

I noticed this curious sight:  there were many chickens running through the parking lot at Cucumber Beach, and they looked superbly healthy, like this rooster.  Seeing this, I ordered a chicken dish from the bar menu, and it was wonderful.  It did not taste like factory-farm-raised American chicken.  I wonder why?? 
Mennonites in Belize.  Reportedly, they have a corner on much of the local fruit and vegetable production. 
“Umma rat on you, hah hah!!!”  Isn’t this cool??  Who would have taken the time to selectively vandalize that government vehicle with such skill and cleverness??
I wouldn’t drink the water, but if you witness a street vendor wield a machete and slaughter a chilled coconut on your personal behalf, apparently it’s safe to drink that coconut milk.  At least eight of us did so (most of us without rum being added to ours), and nobody got sick afterward.  This vendor was a true man of the islands, making for a posed photo which is a real study in human contrasts, in more ways than one.
I bought three locally-made items in Belize.  The first was this beautiful tropical hardwood kitchen cutting board I got for $20.  You’ll note from the label that the description does not reflect a very sophisticated use of English.  This suggests to me that the item might be authentic, rather than made in China and passed off as local (although some stuff from China is similarly unsophisticated).  See how they named each species of wood at the bottom of the label?  Well, every cutting board on the sales shelf had a different sequence of wood types, and the makers had taken meticulous care to arrange each strip of labels to match the pieces – they were all different.  That, too, suggests local production to me. 
I also spent $10 on this little basket which was allegedly made by a Mayan womens’ cooperative…
… and $25 on this Mayan-inspired slate carving sold by a vendor who insisted on showing me both his driver’s license and his union card, to prove to me that he was the same guy who made it (it’s signed on the back).  You’ve learned something new today: one has to join a union in order to be an artist in Belize.  That fact alone is worth $25 in sympathy donation. 
Now, back to the RC Mariner of the Seas itself.
I did not partake of most onboard activities on either cruise ship, but because I like ice skating, we took in this ice dancing show on the Mariner, which was excellent…
…and then a few days later, something quite unprecedented happened: there were probably a dozen public ice skating sessions, of which I took our kids to three, but there was only one “advanced skating” session, where cruisers had to furnish their own skates (and skill).  And I was the only one who showed up for that, of the 3,600 or so cruisers on board.  So basically, I checked an item off my bucket list here but it was an item I hadn’t even put on my bucket list because it was out of reach:  Private ice.   By default, I was granted private ice for the first time in my life.  In the exact middle of the Gulf of Mexico, of all places. 
Flying in four-foot seas.  The rolling of the boat surprisingly did not present a balance problem (because of the ship’s large size, it doesn’t roll with nearly as much amplitude as the waves, but it’s still quite noticeable).  The rolling reminded me very much of skating over tidal ice heaves in the North Atlantic, a childhood story about as far removed from my life in Galveston County as anything ever could be.  I have only skated about a half-dozen times in the past forty years, but this is much like a yoga Warrior 3, except with forward motion. 
OK, now we need a few arty shots just to round things out before closing.

Sky as seen from the Belize tender.  OMG, crushing cruise crowds or not, this view simply never gets old.
Near sunset, with a Carnival ship just for scale.  Wow. 
Another sunset.
“Mommy, there’s something glittering,” my child said.  We know that our return sail is bringing us closer to Galveston when we start seeing these shining in the night. 
All the best in 2013!
Release of the balloons at midnight New Year’s Eve 2013, interior promenade of the Mariner.  


No comments:

Post a Comment

I'm forced to moderate comments because the spammers have become too much for me to keep up with. If you have a legitimate comment, I will post it promptly. Sorry for the inconvenience.