Choosing Cruise Excursions

Alright, with the weekend trip behind me, it’s back to cruise related posts.

After all that time spent finding the cruise we want to book, and selecting the right cabin, our next step is to plan our excursions. My wife’s generally in charge of this one, at least until she’s narrowed it down to a few that look to be the most interesting. One rule of thumb we tend to stick by when starting out: One stop/day must be a beach day. That’s not to say we won’t build in more when everything’s set, just that we want to ensure we at least have one day at the beach on the trip. For anything heading west, that day is usually reserved for whatever stop we have in Mexico, which is usually Cozumel. Beyond that, we’re pretty open to trying new things at the remaining stops.

As far as tour vendors go, we don’t use the cruise-sponsored excursions very often, we generally try to book with a local company. There are some exceptions to that rule, but of the independent tours we’ve done, we’ve never been disappointed in or had issues with the staff. Now, as others will be quick to point out, there are risks in booking with independent operators. Some of the key ones:

  1. If you have to pay anything at the time of booking, odds are you aren’t getting a refund if you have to miss that stop for some reason (generally tender ports where bad weather prevents tendering)
  2. Unlike a cruise-sponsored excursion, the ship will not wait for you if your tour is late getting back. If the tour requires a long drive away from port, be sure to check past reviews to see if that could be an issue.
  3. There’s going to be some level of uncertainty until you’re actually on the tour, since you don’t really know what to expect when you first arrive.

Number one hasn’t been an issue for us to date, as we usually book with tour companies that don’t require up-front payment, and we’ve only ever had to miss one port due to weather. Number two is always in the back of our minds, but in all the excursions we’ve done in different countries, we’ve never had an issue. Remember, cruisers are a key source of livelihood for the tour operators, and if they don’t get you back, they know people will hear about it and look elsewhere.

Number three, now that’s been the fun one for us. When you book with an independent operator, you’re generally basing your choice on their description along with online reviews (more on that later). There’s no cruise line certifying things are safe, that the operator is reputable, etc, so until we’re actually doing whatever tour or activity we booked, that little piece of uncertainty is there in your mind. In fact, some of our most fun excursions started out a bit hairy, so to speak :). To give a couple of examples:

When we were on our Mexico cruise in 2008, my wife booked the three of us, along wither her boss and his wife, on an Argo ATV tour while we were docked in Puerto Vallarta. That ended up being one of the best tours we’ve ever done, but the hour leading up to it was nerve racking. When we booked, we were given instructions on how to get to their office once we got off the boat. It was a walk of just under a mile to some small office building in some pretty humid conditions. Once there, we checked in, and waited for a bit for the van to come get us and take us to the ranch. The 45 minute drive to the ranch made us all a bit nervous initially. We were driving through parts of the area that I’m betting none of the cruise excursions did, over very old, worn down roads, and through very poor towns. At one point, my wife’s boss looked at her with this “what did you get us in to” kind of stare. I have to say that it was all worth it though, we all had a blast, and it was a definite reminder of how lucky we are to have been born where we were.

Argo Argo2 Argo3

My second example is one we did this past Thanksgiving. We’d pre-booked a dune buggy tour in the Dominican Republic through Pro Excursions. We knew ahead of time that it may be a bit chaotic getting to their facility due to the port situation, but even knowing that, were still a bit stressed. The dock Carnival uses is controlled by someone who wants full control over the tour operators allowed at his dock. It’s rumored that he’s got a deal with the lines who use his dock to not allow non-cruise line affiliated tour operators access to it, so when you get off, you have to make your way to the taxi stand, and find the correct taxis to get you where you’re going. Because of the way the taxi/bus area is set up, it can be a bit of a nightmare to find the right ones, especially when it’s crowded. There were others from our ship looking for the same transportation, so working together we managed to find the one we needed after a bit of work. Our transportation to the Pro Excursions building was included in the tour cost, so we didn’t want to end up having to pay for transportation a second time by getting in the wrong cab. Anyway, once we got past that nuisance, we were good. Again, that was one of the best excursions we’ve ever done, and we absolutely loved the Pro Excursions staff. I’ve got plenty of GoPro footage to back that up just how fun that was :).

Buggies Buggies2 Buggies3 Buggies4

The moral of the story here is that while there will be uncertainty, if you do your homework, the odds of an issue popping up will be minimalized. Honestly, our worst excursion was a cruise line sponsored one in Jamaica 8 year ago, where my daughter ended up injured, so issues can happen with official tours, too (saving that for another post).

So how do you find a good tour operator? Research :). This is no different than booking the cruise or finding a cabin. The more you put in to it, the more you get out of it. My wife generally starts in the Ports of Call forums on Cruise Critic. She’ll go one stop at a time, making a list of the most interesting things to do at each stop, and then discuss them with us. We do also look at cruise line excursions for ideas, and to be sure that there isn’t something cool they offer that no local operator does. We’re pretty methodical with this, and narrow it down to one to two activities at each port (we’ll have a backup ready in case the initial activity is booked). Once we have that, we start looking at tour operators, which is again where the CC boards I linked above come in. That area of their forums seems to be less polluted with complainers than the cruise line boards, thankfully, and to date have never led us astray. We also use sites like TripAdvisor, and general internet searches of the different tour operators and tours to get an idea of how others liked them and what sort of problems (if any) arose.

Once all that’s compiled, we book the tours. By that time, we know whether or not the tour operator requires any payment up front, and while we generally don’t like to pay it all ahead of time, we have no issue putting down a small deposit to secure our spot. In many cases, even that isn’t necessary, but when it has been it’s never been a large amount. I hesitate to say we would never use an operator that required up-front payment in full, but we’d limit our exposure as much as possible by not doing it at tender ports, checking to see how many times in the past the ship had to miss that port, seeing if the operator refunded anything if you did miss it, etc. It’s all about limiting risk.

In the end, we’re obviously partial to independent tours, but will go with the option we feel provides the best value and fun for the money. The independent ones we’ve been on have resulted in a much more personal experience, where you don’t end up herded on and off a tour bus all day like cattle. The independent operators tend to take pretty good care of you, and show you more than you’d see otherwise. Your mileage may vary, of course, so as always, I suggest doing your homework when deciding on an independent vs ship sponsored tour. There’s plenty of info out there to help you decide!

Oh, and the main picture at the top of the page was taken in Grand Turk during our helicopter tour this past Thanksgiving. That’s one we didn’t book until we were already off the ship, and the operator cut us a deal as we had 4 of us going up. Another awesome adventure!

Weekend Trip to Woodward

Earlier in the week, my wife decided she wanted to go up to Woodward, PA for the weekend to see our daughter. It’s been almost a month since we dropped her off there after our Bermuda cruise, and she was missing her quite a bit. I admit I was against it at first, since she’s headed off to college in Florida next month, and being away from her for more than a month at a time was something we all needed to get used to. In the end, I lost the battle, and I admit it was one I was fine with losing. I miss her too :)

Camp Woodward is a cheer / gymnastics / action sports camp about 30 minutes outside of State College, PA. She’s been going there for six years now for cheer, first as a camper, then as a junior camper (basically low-level staff who work the cost of camp off), and now as staff. We generally stay on the south end of State College, as it’s an easy drive over from there. This time was no different, as we booked a last minute deal on Hotwire for the Courtyard. There really weren’t many hotel options to choose from, as the town was pretty booked up for some reason (more on that later). The night before we left, we also decided to rent a car for the trip, as we’ve been putting a ton of miles on my wife’s car lately, and I’m getting ready to sell mine, so I didn’t really feel like putting 1200+mi on it right before doing so. Fortunately, Priceline had a pretty good deal on a full size that made it worth the money when comparing fuel costs of that one vs my wife’s Ford Flex. The only downside is that the fairly well loaded Chevy Malibu we ended up with wasn’t nearly as comfortable on a long drive as her Flex. We had the same car for two weeks last summer in SoCal when we were out there touring colleges, and really didn’t find that one comfortable either. Oh well, it saved money, as well as wear and tear on her car.

Friday afternoon, we headed out of Charlotte around 2:30pm. It’s generally an 8-9 hour drive to State College with stops, but thanks to some heavy traffic on I-81N just past Christiansburg, it ended up being around 10 hours. We generally take the same route to Woodward for a couple of reasons. First, my dad lives in New Market, VA, which is about half way there. If something happens, or we get a late start or decide to stop for any other reason, we’ve got a place to stay. The second reason is that Harrisonburg, just south of him, is home to one of our favorite ice cream stops, Kline’s Dairy Bar. My dad wasn’t working Friday, so he met us at the Wolfe St location for a treat. I got vanilla in a pretzel cone, and it was absolutely delicious (I love their pretzel cones)


After finishing that, we moved on. The rest of the drive was pretty uneventful, and we crashed hard after arriving at the Marriott Courtyard around midnight. The room itself was a standard Courtyard room, and the staff were very helpful and friendly.  Not really much to report there :)

The next morning around 7:30am, we headed to Woodward to pick up our daughter and her boyfriend (he works there too). As soon as we saw her, I was pretty happy to have lost the battle on whether or not we should have gone, as I hope  the picture conveys


After a couple of long hugs, we loaded up in the car and headed for Hershey. In all the times we’ve driven up to Woodward, we’d never stopped to see the sights in Hershey, so we decided to head over there to see what we’d been missing. We wanted to keep the costs down, so we weren’t headed to Hershey Park itself, just to Chocolate World (free admission) and to Zoo America ($11/pp).

We chose to go to Zoo America first while it was still somewhat cool out. The place was pretty cool. It’s not a huge zoo, but a good enough size to keep you occupied for a couple of hours. We walked the loop, and even managed to catch the scheduled 11am feeding of the wolves.

ZooAmericaBear Tree Turtles Wolf

After a couple of hours there, we headed for the car to drive over to our next stop, Hershey’s Chocolate World. As mentioned, you can get in for free (including parking), although they do have different activities inside that they charge for. We stuck with the basics, just doing the free Great American Chocolate Tour ride, and walking around checking the place out. We did buy a couple of things in one of the stores, and even got some milkshakes. The shakes were incredible. Most of us got the dark chocolate peanut butter shake, which was excellent, and incredibly filling.

Tour Factory Hersheys ReeseCup

After a couple of hours there, we hopped in the car and headed over to the Museum on Chocolate Avenue for a quick bite of lunch at Café Zooka before heading back to State College.

After the long drive back to State College, we decided to relax a bit at the hotel. The kids didn’t have to be back at camp until later in the evening, so we still had plenty of time to do other stuff. After resting for a bit, we decided to head down the street to the People’s Choice Festival, situated near the Pennsylvania Military Museum. This was one of two arts festivals going on this past weekend, as Arts Fest was also going on in the downtown area. These were the reason for the hotel shortage in the area apparently :). The People’s Choice Festival was closer to the hotel, so we walked around that for a while. Cool stuff, plenty of homemade art and other items to buy, along with some traditional carnival food options. We had dinner plans, so we avoided the food, but enjoyed the walk through the festival nonetheless.

Fair Fair2

After we finished up there, we finally headed to dinner. We already had a place in mind, somewhere we stop every time we’re in State College, Hi Way Pizza. They offer an excellent flaky crust pizza that the wife and I really enjoy. We’ve tried some of the other popular pizza places in town, but always end up back here :).


After a delicious dinner, we had one last stop on the schedule, Berkey Creamery on the Penn State campus. This is another staple for us in State College, as they make some really good ice cream. As usual, the line was out the door, but they do a good job of getting people through quickly with the way you order and pay. We definitely recommend stopping here if you’re in the area for any reason.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Swirl Mint chocolate chip in my daughter's cone, and Lime sherbet in her boyfriend's cup

Our ice cream gone, it was time to drop the kids back at camp and head back to the hotel for some sleep. They both had to be up early to greet incoming campers, so they needed their beauty sleep as much as we needed to rest before the long drive home. Before we headed out of town Sunday morning, we picked up a dozen donuts for her group and drove to Woodward on the way home. Well, it’s not exactly on the way home, but gave us one last chance to see her :)

Woodward Woodward2

Once we said our goodbyes, the wife and I headed home. The drive back was pretty uneventful, and we managed to do it in less than 9 hours, stopping only for lunch. For now it’s back to reality, but we’ll be doing that drive again in two weeks when we go up to get her and bring her home. Yea, it was a lot of driving to only see her one day, but in the end it was well worth it. I love hanging out with her, and as mentioned, will miss her immensely when she’s away at school, so I relish any time we get to spend with her before then. Considering she’ll only be home from Woodward for 10 days before we have to take her to Florida, there’s not much time left. We definitely appreciate the staff at Woodward giving her the day off to spend with us :)

Cabin Selection – What’s the Big Deal?

One of the most stressful parts of booking a cruise for me is cabin selection. As my wife can attest to, I generally put more time in on this than I do cruise selection, and I tend to change my mind more than once along the way.

So what’s the big deal? Why not just select a category and go along with whatever default cabin the booking site selects? Well, for me, the last thing I want to do is end up spending all that money and have the family annoyed by the cabin we end up in. Our first few cruises were group ones with the staff of my wife’s office. Her boss was very generous with them, and if they made goal for the year, he’d take the staff on a vacation, which most of the time was a cruise. On those, I never had cabin selection, we basically went with whatever the travel agent he used gave us. We never really ended up with bad cabins, I’d say, but nothing memorable, either.

Prior to our Thanksgiving cruise on the Freedom in 2011, I’d never actually done any cabin selection research. When we booked that one, I felt somewhat overwhelmed. We knew that within our budget, we could only afford interior or certain ocean view classes. With the available ocean view cabins in our budget being the two lowest decks, I started researching interior options higher up the ship. After a long hunt, I settled on an interior on the Panorama deck, room 1053. It seemed like an interesting location, being one deck above Lido and in the forward section of the ship. This area also seemed like it would have less foot traffic with a smaller number of cabins in that section. Here’s a shot of the deck plan, with our cabin circled in red:


We absolutely loved that location. It had the added benefit of quick access to the “secret deck” on that floor that very few people ventured out to, so it was almost like having your own balcony at the front of the ship. One of the really nice things about this location was having easy access to the outside areas of the upper decks. No waiting for an elevator, walking down a long hall, etc. Just walk out the door, turn right, and head out to deck. It was also a very quiet location, I don’t recall ever hearing anyone running, or any voices, and never heard any noise from the Lido deck. That became our new favorite area for a cabin.

When it came time to select a cabin for our Thanksgiving 2012 cruise on the Legend (also my 40th birthday), I went through another lengthy hunt. This time, our budget allowed for a balcony, which complicated things a bit. We’d never had a balcony, and after reading so many people say how they’d never go back to an interior/oceanview after having a balcony, we finally decided to try one. I’m pretty sure I took even longer finding the right one, as I now had drifting cigarette smoke to worry about. The last thing we wanted was to end up with smoke blowing back on us from any cabin ahead, as non of us can really stand cigarette smoke. After a long hunt, I decided on 4204, which had a group of lifeboats in front of it, meaning there were no balconies immediately ahead of us to worry about:


No complaints on that cabin either, and that lifeboat right ahead of it doesn’t detract from the view in any way, as shown in the Photosynth I did of the balcony while we were in port in Roatan. I will say that we never got the “once you go balcony, you’ll never go back” feeling from it thought. It was nice having it, and we got some great views, but just weren’t wowed to that level.

Moving on, when deciding on a cabin for our Thanksgiving 2013 sailing on the Breeze, we once again found ourselves a little budget constrained, limiting us to inside or oceanview. Somehow I managed to get us booked in to 11203, which is a forward room on the Spa deck, which also meant we got the Spa cabin ammenities:


As we discovered later, this is categorized as handicapped accessible, something not indicated on the site we used to book. We didn’t even realize it until a week or so before the cruise when I changed the bed layout to king on Carnival’s site. Regardless, the room was huge, with plenty of space to move around in, and the same went for the bathroom. The window was pretty good sized, and looked out the right front side of the ship. Additionally, this room also had very easy access to the “secret door”, basically giving us an almost private forward balcony. Just turn right out of the room, and walk out the door :).

Finally, the room selection on our most recent cruise on the Celebrity Summit. This one was a bit of a nightmare through our own doing. When we booked this cruise, I did so with the understanding it would just be the three of us, and our budget allowed for anything up to (and including) a Sky Suite, and having never stayed in a suite, we decided to give it a shot. Adding that in made it far more difficult, as the Sky Suites available were all on deck 6, which frankly didn’t appear to give really clean views of the ocean below due to the presence of lifeboats right below the cabins. After a long process of trying to hunt down pictures, asking advice on the Celebrity forum on CC (which I never did get a response to :) ), and reading reviews, I finally settled on 6128, towards the aft:


Pretty sure that decision took me about a week to make, which all turned out to be a waste of time. About a month later, we (and by “we”, I mean my wife and daughter) decided it’d be fine to bring her boyfriend with us. His parents had agreed to pay for him to come along, and since they hardly ever see each other (they live in another state), we agreed. The problem at that point was that a Sky Suite only sleeps three. That left us with two options, look for something in a lower category that sleeps four, or he can book a single. We ended up choosing the latter, at least initially, as the Family Veranda rooms weren’t available when we called initially. That brought us another snag, you can’t book a single if you’re under 21, and he’s only 18. My wife called the travel agent, who conferenced in Celebrity, and we finally got things set. My wife would be listed in the single interior on deck 2, and the rest of us would be in the suite. When we got on board, we’d switch it up and just have him stay in the interior, which Celebrity said would be fine.

All set, right? Not quite.

About a month before the cruise, I noticed that the family veranda rooms (which sleep up to 5) had opened up. We decided we liked the idea of having us all together, especially since it was his first cruise, so my wife called our agent back. Again, I had to do more research before-hand to see which one of the available FV cabins we wanted, but we ended up moving all of us to 9156, an aft corner FV:


That room was awesome, and we’d finally found a balcony that gave us the “yea, it’ll be hard to go back” feeling. As I mentioned in my review of the ship, there are plenty of pictures of this room available here, and you’re more than welcome to check out my Photosynth of that balcony to get an idea of how big it is, and how wide of a field of view you get. I’d definitely jump on an aft-wrap room again if the budget allowed. The picture I have set as the featured one at the top of this post was shot off the balcony showing the sunrise as we approached Bermuda. We spent a ton of time, including multiple breakfasts and dinners, enjoying that aft view.

So really, cabin selection boils down to the following for me. I want a cabin that meets as many of the following criteria as possible:

  • Provides easy access to upper decks whenever possible. That 10-15 second walk to Lido on the Freedom, Breeze and Summit was awesome!
  • Has as little foot traffic as possible, so we’re not peppered with loud talking / running kids all night. This means selecting something in an area with few cabins, or even at the aft of the ship.
  • If we have a balcony, one that isn’t going to be impacted by smokers, whether they be from another balcony, or from an open deck below. Tip for those wanting to avoid smoke: Most lines only allow smoking on the open decks on one side of the ship. Find out what side that is, and choose the other one if your cabin is near an open deck.
  • Another balcony wish: Has a clean view of the ocean, with no lifeboats in front or below that might obstruct the view
  • If choosing an oceanview, ensure it isn’t so low that we might get to watch waves coming and going over the window (that’s the only thing that’s caused my wife’s motion sickness to pop up so far)
  • Won’t be subject to noise from anything above or below the cabin

That last one is a big one for me. Some of the most common complaints I hear about cabins center around ones situated above or below active areas of the ship. For example: below the gym, directly above or below the main theater or clubs, near the galley, or for higher cabins, below busy decks where you might encounter scraping chairs, noise from sports courts, etc. Our last two cabins, on the Breeze and Summit, violated that rule, but I did a ton of research online to prepare myself. For the Breeze, we were directly below the fitness center, and yes, if you were in the cabin during the day, there was the occasional noise from some of the equipment, but it was never an issue, and we never heard anything in the evenings. On the Summit, we were directly below the outdoor aft bar area. We did hear chairs being moved from time to time, but it was pretty quiet and was never an issue, even for someone like me who’s oversensitive to stuff like that. I’d stay in either one of those rooms again without question. On the Summit, there was one nice benefit of being there. In the evenings, they have live music, so you can sit out on the balcony and enjoy some relaxing tunes :).

So what do I do to find that perfect room?

  • Scour the Cruise Critic boards for the line we’re looking at. In several cases, I’ve found pics of a given room in one or more of those threads, or have been able to get members to send pics simply by asking about a room on the boards.
  • Also check cabin reviews on Cruise Critic
  • Run a search in Google or Bing, as someone may have written about the cabin in a blog
  • Search photo sharing sites like Flikr, Photobucket, etc for pictures of the cabin. I found a ton of pictures of our Summit cabin that way, including exterior shots showing where it was, what sort of view it provided, etc.
  • And finally, spend hours going through all that data to make an educated guess on what the best cabin will be within our budget.

I think that about covers it. I know I probably obsess over cabin selection more than I should, but I’m that way with anything I’m spending large sums of money on. If you have any suggestions to add, feel free to comment!

Choosing a Cruise

Now that I’m done with posts on our last cruise, I figured I’d walk through our selection process for choosing one. This is something that has evolved over the past few years as we’ve visited more ports, had more sea days, and really taken a look at what it is we like about cruising. Note that these are all subjective and obviously won’t be the same for everyone. We want to get the best bang for our buck and visit places we’ve never been, so we’re not really loyal to one line. We certainly don’t choose a cruise based on loyalty programs, as we like to get a taste of all lines and experience the different things they have to offer while enjoying our time together. So how do we choose? Going in order of importance:



This always comes first when we start looking. We weed out the vast majority of cruises in the first couple of days based on itinerary alone, and usually end up with 6-8 cruises that we spend the next few days applying other criteria to. While a cruise we select might go to one or two ports we’ve already been to, we’ve never repeated an entire itinerary. That’s not to say we won’t, and we certainly have a couple in mind we’d like to repeat, it’s just that we like to visit new ports whenever possible.

When reviewing itineraries, we also look at the number of sea days. All three of us enjoy those days at sea, as they provide plenty of time to unwind. The best itineraries in our eyes provide a good balance of sea days and ports, as we find having several ports back to back can make things run together and be tiring. Our favorite cruise to date provided an outstanding mix of ports and sea days, and that was our 2011 Thanksgiving cruise on the Carnival Freedom. That itinerary consisted of:

  • Leave Ft Lauderdale
  • Sea day
  • Cozumel, Mexico
  • Sea day
  • Limon, Costa Rica
  • Colon, Panama
  • Sea day
  • Sea day
  • Arrive Ft Lauderdale

Only having two back to back stops was great, and we loved having two sea days on the end to decompress. Having stops in Costa Rica and Panama was outstanding as well, we loved both stops as I hope I properly expressed in my reviews of both ports.

As another part of our itinerary hunt, we generally hit the “ports of call” forums on Cruise Critic to get an idea of what types of activities people do at a given stop, and to get an idea of what the port area is like.



Once we have a few cruises on the list based on itinerary, we start to narrow that down by price. The list usually includes at least 2 or 3 cruise lines, as we don’t cruise for loyalty benefits, so we can usually knock it down further pretty quickly based on price. Now that’s not to say we’re always going with the cheapest cruise, it’s more about combining this with the next item, cabin selection. It just so happens that three of the four previous cruises we’ve done have been on Carnival, and it’s due in large part to what we could get in an itinerary and cabin selection within our budget.


Cabin Selection

This and price go hand in hand for us. I spend hours pouring over cabin options to try and get us in to the perfect cabin within our budget. I’m definitely not one who’s happy just booking and seeing where we our room is after we board, I do as much research as possible on a cabin before I book. I’ll go into more detail on cabin selection in a different post, but when we’re booking, I’ll be looking to get the best cabin I can within our price range, so if we decide we want to be in a particular section of the ship, like the upper few decks forward, for example, I narrow our list down further based on available cabins and pricing in that section of the ship. Honestly, this part has been a major factor in two of our past three Thanksgiving cruises not being on Royal Caribbean, as we’re not as fond of the layout of their upper decks. I’ll be sure to cover that in my cabin selection post as well.


On Board Activities

As part of our enjoyment of sea days, we like to make sure that the ships we’re looking at are active ones. We’ll spend a bunch of time reading through past reviews, as well as different forums for each line, to see what people have to say about the activities on board. I’ll admit that we did give this one less importance in booking the Summit to Bermuda, as our cruise line choices based on the dates we had available were slim, and there was no way I could have talked my wife and daughter in to sailing NCL again (a topic for another post :)). This last one aside, we’ve learned that the energy on a ship during the sea days is an important factor for us. Now, I do take my sources of information with a grain of salt, especially posts in cruise forums. It seems boards like those on Cruise Critic have turned in to a place where people either spend their time complaining about their chosen line’s loyalty program, or playing “fanboy” and bashing anybody who says anything bad about their line. The most time consuming part about going through reviews and forum posts is sifting through the noise to get to the truly objective reviews.


Past Reviews of the Itinerary and ship

This happens in conjunction with the previous item, as we spend a bunch of time reading those reviews and forum posts to see what people thought of the stops and the ship. I will say that this isn’t an exact science, and we do learn from our mistakes here. Our 2012 Thanksgiving cruise on the Carnival Legend was a perfect example, as the majority of the reviewers seemed to love the ship, and many had cruised multiple times specifically because of how much they liked it. I have to say, none of us agreed. It never seemed crowded, which was a plus, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to sail on it again unless it was a really solid itinerary.


I think that about covers it for us. People choose cruises for varying reasons, but my biggest tip here is to know what you want out of your time on board, and book the appropriate itinerary and cruise line accordingly. While I get the desire to be spontaneous, these things aren’t cheap, so I like to know what I’m getting myself in to before I drop the money on it. In cases like this last cruise where we really wanted to see Bermuda, we’ll adjust some of the other priorities accordingly, but for the most part I’ll stick to the criteria set forth above. Do you have additional things you look at? Feel free to add it in the comments to share with others!

As I’ve alluded to a couple of times, I’m fairly methodical when it comes to cabin selection, so my next post will give some insight into what I look for when choosing one.

Visiting Bermuda – Day 3

From the start, we’d decided to hold off on going to the beach until the last day. Most of what we’d read going in suggested not going on day 1, as that was the busiest time, so we decided to heed the warning. As mentioned in my last post, we’d stopped by the watersports booth at the docks the evening before and booked an early morning jet-ski tour, so we had that on tap as well.

We got up a little before 7, and headed up to Lido for a quick breakfast after getting ready. We were supposed to have room service delivery before 7am, but it didn’t show. I think they finally got to the room at 7:30, but by that time we’d already grabbed some food from the buffet. The meeting time for our jet ski tour was 7:45, and even with the kids being slow to get moving, we made it on time. Upin arrival, they went over some basic safety procedures, gave us all life vest, and we hung out for a few minutes while they prepped the jet skis. Once they were ready, we boarded in groups. My wife and I on one, and my daughter and her boyfriend on another. There were a handful of others in our group as well, so once we were on, we did slow circles in the harbor while we waited for everyone else.

Here’s where I should stop and make an important point. If you can’t swim, you probably shouldn’t be out in the ocean on a jet ski. One of the couples in our group included a woman who apparently can’t swim, and in true Murphy’s Law form, as soon as they got on the ski and were pushed off the dock, they rolled it. With the ski completely upside down, they were left to climb back up on the dock. We felt for the woman, after she got helped back on the dock, she sat there hugging the railing for a bit. I’m sure that was terrifying, but it would have been far more scary if it had happened while we were well off shore. The man with her decided to come out on his own, and seemed to have a blast.

Back to the tour itself, we took a 75min tour of that section of the island with one of the guides from KS Watersports. It was spectacular, taking us into Ely’s Harbor, and then out to the HMS Vixen, which was intentionally sunk out there in the late 1800s. While at the shipwreck, the guide feeds some bread to some local fish as well, and they know it. A ton of fish were out there hanging around waiting on it, and once he threw the bread, they were swarming like a bunch of piranhas going after it. After that, we circled back around and came around the end of the dock area, which gave us great views of the two cruise ships. Here are a few screen grabs from my GoPro that I’d strapped to the front of the ski, including one showing the swarm of fish when bread was thrown their way.

Bridge Fish Returning Shipwreck ThumbsUp

Again, it was a great tour, well worth the money. Our guide was excellent, and when he noticed that we were kinda stuck behind a couple of slower skis early on, told us he was fine with us breaking out of line to pass them and go faster if we wanted. I love jet skis, and was more than happy hit full throttle and oblige :). Good times were had by all!

Our tour over, it was time to hop the #7 bus for Horseshoe Bay Beach. Upon arrival, it really didn’t seem that crowded to us. Up near the entrance where the food/showers/restrooms are was where most people seemed to be set up, but walking down the beach a bit wasn’t an issue. Before doing so, we decided to climb the rocks to get a cool view of the beach. The first two shots are from the top of the rock, the last is looking back at the rock itself after we walked down the beach a bit

BeachFromTheRock TopOfTheRockTheRock

After we got back down, we decided to walk down the beach. Having read up on Horseshoe before we came, I knew that if we walked past the end of the beach, we’d hit a section of small coves, and a smaller beach that few people would be on, so that’s what we did, and it was well worth it. While it was still very humid, it was a beautiful day. We found a little spot on the beach with an overhang, and set up shop.

Beach Beach2 beach3 Cove

One tip, and this is probably an obvious one since they have a captive audience: bring your own food if you can. The food at the stand is fairly expensive, which we expected going in. We just didn’t have time to stop and get something on the way.

Horseshoe is awesome, and we were glad we chose it. We’d hoped to make it to Church Bay beach in the early afternoon, but were so happy with Horseshoe that we decided to stay put. Just gives us something to do next time! Anyway, about 2pm, we decided to head back to the ship so we could clean up and be out on deck for sail away. I will say that when you’re already hot and tired, the hike back up the hill to the bus stop is brutal. I admit I wanted to pay the $2 per person to take the shuttle that short distance, but was overruled. We hiked back up, and were met with a large line for the bus back to the dock. Once again, the local transportation board was prepared. While we had to wait 10-15min for it, they had an empty bus ready to go as an express back to the dock.

Once back at the dock, the kids got off at Clocktower Mall to stop and get some fudge from the shop in there (excellent fudge, btw). After they got off, we all realized that I had their passports, so I hung out over by the ship and waited for them to walk back over. While waiting, I snapped one last shot of the ships:

Ship Panoramic

Once they arrived, we headed back to board the ship one last time. As I hope I’ve conveyed in the past few posts, we had an awesome trip, and absolutely loved Bermuda. It’s a beautiful island with incredibly friendly residents, and we definitely plan to visit again!

Visiting Bermuda – Day 2

Our planned itinerary for day 2 meant taking the ferry to St George, and working back towards Hamilton from there:

But, much like day 1, it didn’t quite go as planned. What hurt us the most was getting up late. I was up at my normal time, around 7am, but everyone else seemed to be moving in slow motion. We ate breakfast a bit late as a result, and got off the ship at 10:32am. I only know the exact time because I happened to look at my phone to see what time it was as the 10:30am St George ferry was pulling away. Those only run once an hour, so at that point we knew our schedule was blown since the next one wasn’t until 11:30. To kill time, we walked through some of the shops around the dock area, and just after 11am, joined the ever-growing line for the next ferry.

That next ferry was 100% full, and not everyone made it on. Fortunately, they had another one waiting in the wings to handle the overflow for those who didn’t make the first one. We did make it on though, and were on our way to St George. The ride is roughly 40min long, and while on board, members of the tourism office talked about the things to do in St George, answered questions, and handed out local maps to anyone who wanted one. This wasn’t a sales pitch, it was just the local tourism board being helpful, and it was a very nice touch.

Arriving at St George, we decided to walk around the dock area a bit before heading up to the unfinished church. A few shots from the dock area, including our ferry heading back to Kings Wharf:

DockArea FerryLeavingStGeroge Town TownHall

After walking through a few shops, we headed up to the unfinished church, and yes, it’s definitely unfinished :). The tourism people on the ferry mentioned that a couple of weeks ago, some cruise passengers got married in it, but it wasn’t open when we were there, so we just had to enjoy it from the outside.

Church2 Church3 Church


Our visit to the unfinished church complete, we headed to the nearest bus stop to make our way to the Crystal Caves. Once we got off the bus, we found something I’d read about a number of times before our cruise, the Swizzle Inn. Being that it was past lunch time by now, we decided to stop for a bite.

Swizzle InnSwizzle2


I had the Swizzle burger pizza, and it was absolutely delicious. I also tried a Rum Swizzle, a signature on the island, and while it was good, I’m not sure I get the “YOU HAVE TO TRY THIS!!!” hype people who’ve been there give off. Anyway, our stomachs full, we walked down the road to the Crystal Caves. There are actually two caves you can tour here, Crystal and Fantasy. We chose to stick with Crystal, but it did seem like a number of people were doing both. The tour of Crystal takes around 30 minutes, and is quite interesting. Our guide, while obviously very knowledgeable, was a bit overdramatic. It really seemed like his act was geared for a group of 1st graders, and not a bunch of grownups, but he was very friendly, and we learned quite a bit about the caves.

So humid... Waiting for the tour to start caves4 Caves3 Caves2

By the time our tour ended, it was too late to get in to the aquarium and zoo, so we headed back up the road to get some ice cream. Right across the street from Swizzle Inn is Bailey’s Ice Cream, and it’s definitely worth stopping here for a delicious treat


Once we were done, we decided to hop on the next bus to Hamilton, and catch the ferry back to Kings Wharf. Getting up late really limited what we could get done, but it also left us with more to see the next time we come to Bermuda. The bus ride from the caves back to Hamilton was very scenic, and gave us some time to relax and cool off. Upon arriving in Hamilton, we hit a couple of shops, then hopped on the next ferry back to the dock. We walked around the shops at the dock a little more as well, and my wife and I decided to stop at the water activity stand and get some info on the jet ski tours. The only thing we had on tap for day 3 was the beach, so we figured if the jet ski tours looked interesting, we’d slip that in too. After talking to the woman at the stand, we were hooked, and decided to book two doubles for the next morning.

With that set, and all of us being hot and tired, we headed back to the ship to get ready for dinner. Day 2 on the island was complete!

Visiting Bermuda – Day 1

Focusing on the time we spent ashore in Bermuda brings a smile to my face. This is by far one of the coolest islands we’ve visited, and we see why so many people do the Bermuda cruise more than once. Also, because of everything I’d like to cover, I’m going to split this in to three posts, one for each day we were there.

We went in to this cruise far less prepared than we normally are thanks to a hectic schedule leading up to my daughter’s graduation. Normally we have all excursions booked with various operators a few months in advance, and for places we just want to walk around, we’ve done some scouting online. This time, the most we did was come up with a list of things we wanted to see while we were there, and drew up a rough idea of what day we wanted to do or see each thing.

Now, Bermuda’s a bit different than normal ports in that they have an outstanding public transportation system. When you get off the ship, there’s a little pink building where you can buy ferry/bus passes, and we’d decided from the start to buy 3-day passes to use while there and get around the island that way, versus using taxis or doing tour excursions. When we arrived in Bermuda, we decided not to get off right away to try and avoid lines at the ticket booth, so we waited about an hour, and ate breakfast on the balcony again.

Getting off the ship was easy, with very little wait (I love docking :)). We walked over to the transportation ticket office, and with only one person in line in front of us, got our 3-day transportation pass within a couple of minutes. Here’s a shot of the building where you buy the passes, the windows where they’re sold are on the left where the group of people is:


One tip here: they only take cash. The 3 day pass that we bought was $35 per person (current prices and more information are available here). Once we had our passes, we hopped the ferry to Hamilton. Our initial plan for that first day was:

  • Visit Fort Hamilton
  • Hop the bus and head to St George to see the unfinished church
  • Visit Fort St Catherine
  • Head back to Hamilton for Harbor Nights

But plans don’t always work out, right?  It was really humid during our stay, and as a result, things got moved around and removed from the schedule based on how hot and tired we were at any given time.

Anyway, we got to Hamilton and walked up to Fort Hamilton. The fort itself is beautiful, and sits up on a hill, providing some great views of the island.

FortHamilton1 FortHamilton2FortHamilton HamiltonView

You can also walk down in to the area where the moat used to be, and even into the tunnels in the outer walls at the front of the fort

Moat tunnelentrance insidethewalls

Now if you visit the fort, beware. When you walk down to the moat and into the tunnels, you do have to walk back up :). When you’re already hot, that climb seems unforgiving


After climbing the stairs and walking around the rest of the fort, we decided to head back in to Hamilton to walk around and shop a bit on Front St. We stopped in a few stores, enjoyed some AC, and bought some shirts. Being that it was now around lunch time, we decided to head back to the ship and grab something off the buffet to avoid having to spend money on lunch. Once we ate, we checked out the shops around the dock area, including the Clocktower Mall. After spending a bit of time over there, we went back to our list to see if we could squeeze anything in before dinner. We decided to grab a bus and head to Somerset Bridge, which I’d heard about from a friend who grew up in Bermuda.

Somerset Bridge is claimed to be the smallest drawbridge in the world, and it’s on what basically seemed to be the main road from the docks to everything else. While on the bus, we weren’t sure where to get off for it, and the bus driver was more than happy to let us know when we should get off. Once our stop came, we found ourselves having to walk down the road hugging the stone wall on one side to avoid traffic, as the main road is two very tight lanes (In hindsight, I wish I’d gotten a picture). Once we got to the bridge, we quickly saw why it’s the smallest drawbridge (yes, that’s me)

Somerset Somerset2

The opening is only 32 inches side to side, so I can definitely see how this is the world’s smallest.

After making our way back to the bus stop – oh, and another tip: blue poled stops take you away from Hamilton, pink take you towards it (more bus info) - we headed back to the ship to get ready for dinner. Having what more or less equated to a floating all-inclusive resort handy, my wife wanted to pay for as few meals as possible while in Bermuda, which is why we ate both lunch and dinner onboard on day 1.

After dinner, we headed back down to the ferry and took the ride over to Hamilton. During cruise season, they put on a little festival in Hamilton called Harbor Nights. We arrived a little before 8pm, and things were in full swing. There were quite a few tourists (duh), along with a line of vendors set up on Front St. In addition, there was live music, and booths selling delicious smelling food. In hindsight, I wish we’d skipped dinner on the boat and eaten at one of the booths.

HarborNights4 HarborNights3 HarborNights2 HarborNights1

We really enjoyed our time there, and my daughter ended up buying a couple of pink sand picture frames for her and her boyfriend. One theme throughout our stay in Bermuda was that no one’s pushy in trying to sell you stuff, and Harbor Nights was no different. After we finished walking around and checking out booths, we stopped for snow cones:


Harbor Nights doesn’t end until 10pm, but we’d pretty much walked it all and seen what we wanted by around 9:15pm, so we hopped the ferry back to the ship. I should note that the ferry is obviously more packed going to and from Harbor Nights, but the local transit authority does a good job of adding more boats as needed and getting people in and out quickly.

While we didn’t stick to the original plan, day 1 was definitely a success. The transportation system makes it very easy to change things up, and there is no shortage of stuff to see and do in Bermuda!