In January of this year, I took a 7-day cruise to the Eastern Caribbean. Due to a very special friend of mine, I didn’t even have to pay—it was a Christmas gift. (Christmas miracles do happen, I’m now convinced). Since I’ve gotten back, so people have asked “how was the cruise?” that I decided to write down all my thoughts, mainly so I wouldn’t forget them, but also to answer a lot of people all at the same time. So, in case you wondered, here are the details!
My friend and I took a cruise on the Carnival Dream (which is the largest ship in Carnival Cruise Lines and the 10th largest in the world) and we went to the Eastern Caribbean.
We debarked from Port Canaveral in Florida, just south of Cape Canaveral, and headed out to the Caribbean (we could actually see Kennedy Space Center from where the boat launched). In this case, our trip to the “Eastern Caribbean” meant we would stop at three places:
- The Bahamas (a British-controlled collection of over 3,000 Islands)
- St. Thomas (one of the US Virgin Islands, a territory of the USA)
- Sint Maarten (the lower half of an island half owned by France and half owned by the Dutch)
Here’s what that looks like on a map:
My experience on a cruise ship was interesting: “taking a cruise” has long been on my bucket list, so it was good to finally give it a try. I learned all kinds of things about cruises, and I’d be happy to share some of those things below. Here are just some of the many observations I had while taking a cruise:
- Taking a cruise is not like any other experience, you’ll either become one of the “cruise people” if you like it, or you’ll try it once and call it good. In my case, I think I fall into the latter category: I certainly had fun, but I think this was the only cruise I’ll take. In contrast, I met several people n the ship who take cruises frequently. I met one man who’d been on 42 cruises in the past six years… he liked them so much that he had already booked himself on the next cruise out on the same ship, so as soon as we got back, he headed right back out.
- Cruise ship employees are from just about every country (except the USA). In the seven days I was on the Carnival Dream, I saw exactly one staff member who was American; she was the cruise director. The rest were from all over the world: Grenada, the Philippines, Bosnia, Peru, Mexico, Bulgaria, Indonesia, Jamaica, Thailand, the UK, and many other countries. One of our favorite staffers—Dusko—was from Macedonia. He was a lot of fun to talk to, was kind of a joker, and told us all about how the working environment on a cruise ship is. Which leads me to my next point…
- Working on a cruise ship sucks. It’s really hard, tedious, non-stop work. To work for Carnival, you get a contract for a certain number of months, usually six months, but sometimes up to nine. During your contract, you work seven days a week, with absolutely zero days off, for the entire duration. In Dusko’s case, he had a seven month contract. The bright side, he said, was that when his contract ran out, he was going to go back home to Macedonia and take two or three months off.
- The ship rocks. Constantly. It never stops rocking. No, a giant cruise ship like the Dream doesn’t get tossed violently back and forth in the waves, but it still does rock from side to side. And it never, never stops rocking unless you’re in port. You eventually get used to it—the coffee cup you have in the morning slides across the table from you and you eventually think nothing of it. But it definitely takes a while to get used to. What was really surprising was how long it took me to adjust AFTER the cruise was over: my body kept swaying back and forth trying to compensate, for a two full days after the cruise!
- There are people packed in, everywhere, all the time. The Dream holds nearly 4,000 people—which is the size of a small city. This means that whenever we wanted to use the elevators, we had to wait in line. When it was dinner time, we had to wait in line. When we were at port and it was time to go on an excursion, we had to wait in line. We waited in line everywhere, and unlike, say, a hotel, you can’t just find another elevator or exit door—since you’re on a ship, you just have to wait your turn. Sometimes, this takes a very long time.
- Large ships move painstakingly slow, and a majority of your time spent on a cruise ship is spent just “getting there” and “getting back.” While we arrived in the Bahamas the morning after our launch from Port Canaveral, it took us more than two full days “out to sea” to get back from St Maarten. And if you’re claustrophobic or get cabin fever, that is a really, really long time. The cruise lines try to break up this time with entertainment: they had a “Men’s Hairy Chest Competition,” games, stand-up comedy, musical variety shows, and other things of that nature, but all these things are attempts at distracting you from the fact that you’re stuck on a boat a thousand miles away from land and there’s nothing you can do about it for a few days.
- There’s nothing to see on a cruise ship. Except for when you pull into a port, when you’re out in the ocean, there’s not a darn thing to see—it’s all dark blue water as far as the eye can see. Except for the occasional ship from another cruise line we would see headed the opposite direction in the distance, we didn’t see anything except water for days.
- Cruise ships have extremely complex floor plans and layouts and it is very easy to get lost in them. We got lost nearly every time we left our cabin, even up to the very last day. There are all kinds of hallways, doors, elevators, and staircases that look exactly alike each other and it’s so easy to get disoriented, and there are even floors that are dis-contiguous: (on deck 3, you couldn’t walk straight from the back (aft) of the ship to the front (bow) in one shot–halfway through, you have to go up to the fourth deck for a bit, walk for a while, then go back down the stairs to the third deck to continue). We never got used to this.
- The food is all included, and it’s all-you-can-eat, all the time! There was even a 24-hour pizza joint with free pizza, as much as you want, whenever you want. How cool is that?! We loved it. There are lots of little tiny “restaurants” on the ship where you can get various kinds of food depending on your taste. There was a chocolate bar (where you could get dozens of chocolate treats), a grill (with cheeseburgers, hot dogs, and the like), a pizza joint (as I said—open 24 hours!), a sandwich shop (with about 15 different kinds of sandwiches, and it was also open 24/7), an Indian place (which was my favorite—I had a lot of Tandoori Chicken, Fish and Naan here), and much much more. This is really one of the highlights of taking a cruise.
- If you like gambling and smoky bars, you would LOVE a cruise ship. The best way I can describe a cruise ship is like this: it’s a Las Vegas Hotel that floats in the ocean. My wife and I went to Las Vegas for our honeymoon when we were married, and we spent the whole week walking through casinos filled with smoke and ringing bells and neon lights. A cruise ship is similar. It has revues, plays, comedy clubs, casinos, smoky bars with honky-tonk singers, and much more. So if you’re not into these kinds of things, your days out at sea will be spent watching LOTS of TV in your room.
- Watch our for discrepancies between “island time” and “boat time.” These are often different! If you have any excursions planned on the island, make sure you find what time it starts and ask whether they’re talking about island time or boat time. For example, I had a boat dive scheduled for 9:00am on one day, and we showed up at 8:30am boat time, which meant we were early, but since the dive shop was running on island time, that meant we actually showed up at 9:30am, so I was actually late. I missed the dive. Fortunately, I was able to get a refund and find another dive shop, but it was a frustrating experience.
- The trick on a cruise is to find the spots where the tourists don’t go when you’re on an excursion. Great example: when the 3,000+ patrons were herded out of our ship onto the dock in Nassau, Bahamas, there were all kinds of vendors hawking their wares, as well as “outfitters” who wanted to take people on tours of the islands and scuba/snorkeling adventures. We didn’t take the bait in the tourist traps; instead, we got on a bus and paid a whopping $1.25 for a ride across the island, and when all the other tourists got off to hit up Junkanoo Beach, we asked the driver if he could take us somewhere where nobody else was. …and he sure did: we ended up on a nearly secluded part of Cable Beach by an awesome restaurant called The Poop Deck by ourselves. It was a great experience, and I think it was much better than piling in with everyone else at the familiar tourist destination.
- Leave your phone at home! I was shocked at how horrendous the cellular connections were in the Caribbean. It’s just not worth bringing your phone: not only will you pay outrageous roaming charges (I’m talking several dollars per minute and over $20 per megabyte of data transfer!), the plain and simple fact is you just can’t get reception anywhere. I bought the international plan on my iPhone for the month to help cover roaming charges, but couldn’t get a signal anywhere, so it was essentially pointless. Note: the only exception was St Thomas, where there were AT&T towers so I had full phone and data without even paying roaming fees since it’s part of the USA. So except for the Virgin Islands, I basically kept my phone turned off the entire time.
In all, it was a great trip, and I’m glad to have added it to my list of things I’ve done. And I’m sure going to be more educated if I ride a cruise ship again.
That’s my experience. What’s yours? Have you been on a cruise before? What did you think? (Also, check out this video from Maho Beach where we stood right next to a jumbo jet taking off!)