Saturday, June 26, 2010

Cruise Day Five - wrap it up already!

I know, six posts for this one trip is a bit absurd. This is the last one, I promise.

We needed to be out of our room by 8:30 AM on Friday. We didn't know though when we would be let off the ship - that depended on room status (more expensive rooms get to leave first) and whether you chose to carry your own bags (you get off quicker, but have to shlep your bags around) or let the Carnival people take them to the terminal for you (which is what Mrs Notthat and I chose to do).

Our flight out of Ft Lauderdale was not until 1:25 - not enough time to really do anything in Miami, but not urgent enough for us to want to be in a rush. For the others, their flights were much later and they chose to carry their own bags to get out faster and spend some time exploring Miami.

We met with the others for breakfast at 7 AM at the sit down restaurant. This was much more pleasant than the chaos of the main buffet area, although it took a bit longer.

This is what the sunrise looked like from our room.

We were finally allowed to wander off the ship at 9:30. We collected our bags and waded through customs and found our tour bus to take us to the airport. And this is what we saw.

Actually, it was much worse than that. There must have been over a hundred giggly, hyper kids all leaving on some sort or summer camp trip. And they were all lined up at Southwest. I was able to sneak a peek at one of their boarding passes and was hugely relieved to see it was for some other flight.

Our flight was a bit delayed, but the airport had free WiFi, so we were able to catch up a bit with emails and such. (We had WiFi on the ship, but it was pretty expensive. It was $25 for 60 minutes, plus another $4 initial connection fee. We actually ended up using exactly 60 minutes - every minute past that was going to be 75 cents! So we would quickly check to see if anything important was happening and then disconnect.)

We flew from there to Austin, from Austin to Los Angeles, and finally from there to San Jose, where we ended up getting in about 30 minutes late. All the flights were full except the last one, but naturally someone chose our row to sit in, meaning we never did get an empty seat to spread out in.

It was great to finally get home though. (We have both been struggling a bit with getting rid of our sea legs - the floor still feels like its swaying a bit.)

It was a good first cruise. Some specific points (that are going to sound like whining, mostly because they are):

• The price of the cruise has little to do with how expensive the cruise will be. The food is free (although there were options you could pay extra for if you wanted to). As long as you drink water, tea, coffee, and lemonade, the drinks are free too. If you want sodas or any adult beverages, you will pay (a lot) for those. And not just the price they list - there is always a 15% gratuity added.

• We paid nearly $200 for the two of us to take the Key West trolley tour and Cozumel snorkel excursions. Which was fine, although some tips get tossed in there too. I suspect you could save a fair amount by not booking these through Carnival, but being our first time I felt better doing it their way this time.

• A $40 per day charge was added for general tips. That alone was $200. You are able to adjust this amount somehow, but we just left it as it was.

• I don't understand the way they handle the pictures. Pictures are taken every night at dinner (sometimes twice), every time you leave the ship (always with actors dressed up as some sort of character, and sometimes twice), and any other time they can ambush you. They print up all the pictures and display them in a large area. You can spend a lot of time searching through them to find the ones you might want, but most of them you won't care about. Especially once you hear the price - some are around $10 but most are more like $20. It would cost you probably $200 to buy all your pictures if you wanted. If they are going to go through the trouble of printing them anyway, why not price them a bit more reasonably - had they been half the price we probably would have bought well over twice the number that we did, and there would be a LOT less waste that they just end up throwing away. Here are the pictures we bought:

Those were about $50 altogether (although the fish one was not from Carnival). It kills me to think of the massive waste. It would be interesting though if they offered you an option to buy a disc with digital versions of all your pictures at the end of the cruise. The hassle would be figuring out who everyone was, but if they could work that out, that would be cool. Alternatively, you could call up your pictures, view them on a digital display, and print just those you liked. (Ironically, we wanted to buy the group picture when we all boarded, but couldn't find it. It turned out that Tap had beat us to it. We were able to take their copy and ask for an additional print of it. It's weird they don't have a better way to do this.

• Speaking of massive waste, I rarely go to buffets any more for a couple of reasons: 1) I will grossly overeat while trying to get my money's worth and 2) it kills me to see what people waste. Especially when it's free. We would walk by tables with plates filled with food that people had left. It was really depressing.

• The crowds could get overwhelming. This is something I would get better at with time. I almost always just ate salads for lunch because the other buffet areas were so crowded. Timing this better and avoiding the buffet area would help with this a lot. The other place that was always so crowded was the pool area. It seemed to always be filled with strutting teenagers or guys in their early 20s (or pathetically trying hard to pretend they were that age), all trying to be cool for the girls sunning themselves. This picture was from the last day, when the weather was not that nice, and yet the pool was still pretty full.

You could pretty much always find some quiet corner on a deck somewhere to read and relax, and I expect with experience, you could get really good at that.

• It's a pain not to have a way to contact people. The ship is really big. If someone is not in their room, your chances of running into them randomly are not good. It would have been useful to have been able to just call them on their cellphone, but wow is that expensive. Maybe taking a bunch of walkie-talkies would work, but I suspect that would not be allowed - it would certainly be more annoying for others.

• On the plus side, almost every crew member we dealt with was great. I can't imagine working on a ship like that - apparently they sign on for a nine month contract. We got into port at 8 AM and the ship was set to go back out at 4 PM for a three day cruise to the Bahamas. You are always on, and I can imagine you have to deal with some difficult people.

• Also, our room was better than I had expected. We got the cheapest room with a window they had, and it was not much different than the more expensive rooms, other than being a floor or two further from the action. This was not all bad - the extra exercise climbing the stairs worked to our favor. There was a TV with Colorado TV stations (weird) plus a few cable channels plus three movie channels, showing reasonably new movies. The window was worth it - I wouldn't get a room without one (thank you Eiluj for talking us into that!). The shower was fine and there was enough closet space.

• For the most part, the food was great. I was surprised at how good the pizza was - I expected something bordering on frozen quality, but it was really pretty good. You just had to wait in line for it. The food in the non-buffet restaurants was great. The buffet food was fine, but always had a long line. And I always got behind the woman that needed to pick through all the whatevers to find exactly the right one.

• There was a wide variety of shipboard entertainment. Most was free (although you might get hounded by waiters wanting to sell you beverages), and it was not hard to find something interesting to do most of the time. The two evening shows we went to were really good (if you like that kind of thing). And there is always bingo and the casino.

• The weather was pretty good for us, but I can see how an unlucky storm or two would really cramp a short cruise like this.

And I think that's about it. Let me know if you have any specific questions. It's an interesting way to vacation, and I was hugely relieved that I never had any seasickness issues.

That's it - move along...

Cruise Day Four

This day was entirely at sea, heading back to Miami. I was determined to get a bit of exercise in, so I woke up a bit early and headed up to the "Olympic" jogging track.

I knew it was an "Olympic" track because they said so.

I'm pretty sure it's just me, but I found this sign at the track to be extremely confusing. First, on the left it says "Approximately one status mile." I have no idea what a "status mile" is, and Google was little help. At the bottom it shows how many feet and meters make up a status mile, at the top it lists how long a lap is (in yards and meters - yes, they expect you to do math to convert from feet to yards), and then it says how long eleven laps is. In looking again at this just now, I realize that the "Approximately one status mile" bit belongs to the "eleven laps" line.

So it is just me.

I had tried to be relatively quiet as I snuck out (it was about 7:30 AM), but apparently I wasn't quiet enough as Mrs Notthat surprised me by showing up a bit later. One thing that surprised both of us was how windy it was - there was no way I could wear my hat. My theory is that the wind was mostly due to the direction we were heading; we were probably going with the wind before and so didn't notice it as much.

So the two of us abused the track for a bit then headed down to breakfast. We were still early enough to beat the rush and have a nice leisurely meal on the deck.

At lunch we met up with Yendor again. (He was the star of the first night's karaoke event, talked about in the Cruise Day One post.)

He came over and we talked for quite a while. It turns out he has a weekend band (he drives a truck during the week) so it wasn't exactly a fluke that he was so entertaining. He was on the boat with 48 other family members for a reunion - I can't imagine trying to coordinate that many people for something like this. In any case, we promised to come to the karaoke bar that night to hear him one more time (his family members kept signing him up to do songs - he was generally caught by surprise, but I'm sure loved the attention). I don't know if it was him or not, but the karaoke bar was much fuller that night than it had been the first night.

During this part of our voyage, we were sliding by Cuba. You couldn't really see it without binoculars, but if you use your imagination, you can vaguely see it on the horizon.

(Just pretend, OK?)

At dinner that night, our waiter Miller (who we had a long discussion with about whether that was his first or second name - it was his first) made us a boat out of a napkin. This was before Eiluj smacked him, which is a picture I deeply regret not having.

Mrs Notthat and I went to another musical show after dinner before heading over to the karaoke bar for the last couple of singers, including Yendor's last song, Mustang Sally, in which he got at least 20 women to join him on stage.

And that was it for the day. We set out two of our bags which were collected and we would pick up in the terminal after we docked. The next day was going to be long with us getting off the ship and flying three legs back to San Jose.

That's it - move along...

PS: Here is a picture I forgot to add to the previous post. This is a picture of a picture that was taken as we left the ship to head to the snorkel adventure.

I had no nose water at this point.

Cruise Day Three

We got wet, showered, then got wet again. This was our day in Cozumel, an island off the coast of Mexico.

The ship pulled up to the dock at about 2 PM on Wednesday. It wasn't leaving until 10 PM, so we had most of a day to wander around the place. Sirhc, Mrs Notthat, and I booked a triple snorkeling tour and made arrangements to meet up with the rest later at Señor Frogs, which we were assured was right at the end of the pier, for dinner.

Eiluj, Eibbed, and Tap all had the goal of finding a beach and moving as few muscles as possible. It was at this point that we also found out that Señor Frogs was not located at the end of the pier, but was in historic (?) downtown Cozumel. We were still determined to eat there though.

Sirhc and Mrs Notthat waiting to board the boat. I was nervous about getting on this boat since the water was not especially calm (there were storms brewing in the distance) and the boat was not the size of our cruise ship, so I had taken a couple of dramamine before leaving the ship. They must have worked (or I didn't actually need them) since I had no issues with keeping my lunch in its proper place.

Finally it was time to follow Monty to the boat (the one on the left). It was a fairly large group of people that went with us on this adventure.

This is Monty explaining the intricacies of not getting eaten by a shark. Or drowning. Okey dokey? (He was a lot of fun and that was his catch phrase.)

All three of us went on the first dive. Note the life vests we are wearing. We were required to wear them, but were not required to inflate them. I had started to inflate mine but stopped once I realized it was going to be uncomfortable before we got in the water. Sadly, I forgot to finish inflating it before we jumped in, so I floundered a little bit while trying deal with it. With a bit of an assist I was able to get it filled and start peeking at the fish.

This is a picture  of a picture that was taken of Mrs Notthat and I, holding hands underwater while trying to avoid being eaten by these fish that were hanging around. (I swear, it would not have surprised me to have a photographer show up in a bathroom stall to capture that special moment when, well, never mind.)

That first dive we saw a lot of fish like are in this picture plus a large lobster that Monty coaxed out of a cave. The coolest thing was a huge school of some sort of fish that were all bunched together like a large ball. Monty dived into the middle of them and they formed a huge donut.

Mrs Notthat was not feeling well after the first dive, so she sat out the second dive. This is me all geared up and ready to go.

There I go, doing my best motorboat impersonation. (Amazingly, I almost forgot to blow up my life vest again. I blame all the salt water that I had ingested on the first dive.)

Sirhc was also going to sit out this dive due to issues with her face mask, but a nice woman next to her let her use her spare pair she had brought - these worked great for her. She caught me totally by surprise when she showed up.

Here is the blog and Sirhc waiting to board the boat at the end of the second dive. Cool things on this dive were two stingrays.

By this time I was done. My nose and throat were very irritated by all the salt water that kept finding its way in, and my arms were tired from trying to paddle around. (Throughout the rest of the day I would occasionally tilt my head just right and water would start dripping out of my nose. It was the weirdest thing. Twice during the night I rolled over only to have a small bit of water drain out. Weird.)

But both Sirhc (already in the water in this picture) and Mrs Notthat were ready to go on the third dive. Monty mentioned a shark he had pulled from a cave earlier in the day, and weirdly, people got excited. He didn't find the shark again, but they did manage to see a lot more fish and another ray.

Here Mrs Notthat is heading out to the pod of other snorkelers. (There were several assistants that kept us more or less herded together while in the water, and kept their eyes out for anyone struggling or forgetting to inflate their life vest (blush).

One benefit of me skipping this dive was that I was able to get started on the free beer sooner. (I just had to be careful to not dribble nose water in it.)

While I lounged on the upper deck, Mrs Notthat and Sirhc rinsed off some of the salt water once the third dive finished.

Everyone relaxing, sharing horror stories, and eating snacks. The lobster was quickly growing from "about a foot long" to "the size of a German Shepherd." Note the clouds in the background. The cloud cover brought a welcome shade and kept things from getting too hot.

Once the boat docked, we headed back to the ship to take a quick shower, put on some dry clothes, and then head back to the city to the much anticipated Señor Frogs.

We managed to find the place and the rest of the group, but after twenty or so seconds there we headed out due to the amazingly loud music. It was weird - the place was almost empty but they were so determined to make our ears bleed that we headed down to a place called Carlos' and Charlie's. They also had music, but it was much closer to tolerable. (One unanticipated bonus was that us snorkelers were given a batch of stickers that were worth a free drink at either of these places.)

Eibbed and Tap. We started at a table out in the open air. It was actually very pleasant.

The blog (nose water free, for the moment) and Sirhc.

Llessur and Eiluj (Ydnas had already headed back to the ship due to not feeling well).

While waiting for our food, a photographer showed up (naturally), put these hats on all of us and took our picture. Weirdly, he could not understand or hear us when we asked him to use our cameras. He showed back up a few minutes later with a print out of the picture that Tap bought and promised to copy for all of us. (Digital cameras and good quality fast color printers have created a massive opportunity to separate tourists from their money. And it works.)

And then the rain came. This was our table - we moved one table closer to the building, under an awning, and kept on eating.

By the time we finished eating and getting back to the dock, it had stopped raining and Mrs Notthat and I did some shopping. (OK - she did some shopping and I just followed around holding things for her.)

She did manage to take this great picture of the sunset and the ship.

And that was pretty much it for day three. The next day would be spent on the ship, powering our way back to Miami. And for me, some true relaxing. Probably.

That's it - move along...

Cruise Day Two

The second day of the cruise involved our fist shore excursion to the odd place known as Key West and the (imagine scary music here) Formal Dinner.

Our ship pulled out of Miami at about 4 PM on Monday. It pulled into Key West at 8 AM Tuesday. Mrs Notthat and I wisely chose to ignore getting an early start and instead went for the 10 AM trolley tour of the island. We had the choice of sitting in the fairly open train-like cars (in the foreground) or in a mostly covered trolley-like bus (in the background). We, and most people without little kids, chose the mostly covered trolley. Since our ship docked at a naval pier, the area around the boat was strictly controlled. We got in the trolley bus and were driven into town past the guarded gate. (We had to go through a mini-customs sort of thing when we came back in.)

An awful lot of the Significant Sites on the island are based on Ernest Hemingway. "Ernest regularly got sloppy drunk at Sloppy Joes." "Ernest regularly avoided this church." "Ernest once spit on that brick right there." Additionally, Tennessee "Stud" Williams wrote the first draft of "Streetcar Named Desire" (working title "Cruiseship Named Leaky") in Key West. Also, based on the number of times we saw him, Captain Jack Sparrow apparently is still alive and well here.

There was a long line of people waiting to get their picture taken at this landmark, the "Southernmost Point in the Continental U.S. that We Could Find To Put this Landmark."

One thing you saw was a lot of anti-BP sentiment. This was one of the few that did not contain extremely rude words. (In case you are curious, we saw no evidence of the oil rig disaster on the cruise. I hope that cruisers will still be able to say the same thing a couple of months from now, but fear it won't be long before Key West will be affected.)

One of these is made out of natural sponges and the other is not real.

There are a lot of whimsical statues scattered about the town.

As well as a lot of shopping opportunities.

Me hanging with a banyan tree. (We had seen a huge version of the trolley tour, but were unable to get a picture of it or find it later when we were walking around.)

Mrs Notthat looking into a fixer-upper. (It was listed at $3.9 million, down from a bit over $5 million. A bargain if they can prove Ernest stumbled on its pathway once.)

An odd bar that Mrs Notthat spotted with many signed bras hanging from the ceiling. I was way too scared to venture in.

And that was about it for Key West. The boat left the docks at 2 PM. During lunch, Llessur heard about a hairy chest contest. Llessur is not a wild and crazy guy. He is a quiet, reserved, grownup. But he really wanted to win this contest. Brave Ydnas encouraged him to go for it.

Here are the final contestants (eight guys on the right) and judges (three women on the left, being coached by the hardest working person on the ship - I believe her name was Rachel or something like that - who ran a LOT of these little contests throughout the day).

Some enthusiastic fans named Sirhc, Eibbed, and Mrs Notthat. Brave Ydnas was calmly sitting at her table.

The shirts came off. As it turned out, winning had little to do with having a hairy chest, and a LOT to do with how rudely you could dance. The guy on the right won. The guy massaging a couple of his private parts to the left of the wooden beam made it to the finals by virtue of mooning the audience.

Quiet, reserved, grownup Llessur took the high road (well, let's just say a higher road than the others) and was rewarded with a genuine medal. It was amazing that he gave this a shot - I could have had chest hair like a wookie and you couldn't have dragged me on that stage.

After that event we all participated in a Name That Tune contest, which we failed miserably at due to it being based on 90s music that most of us had never heard of, followed by a trivia sort of thing based loosely on Who Wants to be a Millionaire where both Llessur and I won trophies - him for knowing that Green Acres was based near Hooterville and me for knowing that lots of chocolate gets sold for Halloween.

Speaking of scary things, this was the Formal Dining Night. There were rules about how dressed up you had to be, but the rules were rarely (if ever) enforced. (Honestly, this more than anything adds dread to a trip like this. I'm on an extremely casual vacation, but am forced to pack nice slacks, shirt, tie, and shoes  - I refused to wear formal underwear - that are only worn this one evening, and only until dinner is over. This is almost as mysterious as Subway not selling french fries.)

In any case, Ydnas and Llessur are laughing here because they were given a special desert with a candle in it due to this being their honeymoon.

Eibbed and Tap are laughing here because they really have no idea why they got a special dessert with a candle in it. Miller our waiter somehow worked out that it was their third anniversary, which was news to them. (The special dessert did not go to waste, however.)

This is a picture of the picture that was taken of Mrs Notthat and I, who did not get a special dessert.

After dinner we bolted for our room to change. This was the view outside our window.

And this was our window.

Most of us headed to a musical review show thing that involved lots of dancing and singing and was universally loved (except in my little corner of the universe, where it was universally tolerated, but could have been better if we had been much closer and better able to see the show girls, ummm, talents).

When we came back to the room later, this was on our bed.

Carnival is famous for their towel art (they sell a book about it and had a class about doing it). Every night we had a different thing on the bed. One of the best though was on Tap and Eibbed's bed the first night.

The sunglasses were a nice touch.

And that's about it for the second day. Wednesday is our Cozumel day.

That's it - move along...