Caribbean

Western Caribbean Cruise – Jan 2017

This content was originally developed in Jan / Feb this year but its taken until now to finally proof read!

It’s February and we’re jetting away from the cold for a little winter sun and our third cruise.  This time we’ve chosen Oceania (and the ship Marina) and we’re taking a 10 day Western Caribbean tour.  Oceania is step down (in size) from our last two cruises and this ship has only around 1,250 passengers but it’s a step up in quality with a reputation for high quality food.

Our ride to Miami

Getting everything logistically in the right place before we head off is something of a challenge but eventually we board our direct flight to Miami from Frankfurt and after an uneventful 9 and a half hours we’re enjoying a 30 degree temperature change.  We’re debating the whys and wherefores of business class versus economy (we are in economy) but whichever way you slice it, unless there’s a really good deal to be had, it’s almost impossible to justify the cost of a business class flight especially as an early retiree.  We’ve managed to get seats at the front of cattle so we’re able to stretch out which makes the difference even less apparent.

Miami Beach

We arrive in Miami late afternoon and check into our hotel, the Marriott Biscayne Bay.  It’s not a bad hotel per say but the pictures on the internet were either taken a long time ago, or have been photo shopped.  It’s not awful just a little ragged around the edges which is disappointing as the photos make it look quite glamorous.  Anyway gold status (I haven’t qualified this year so were enjoying the last of the benefits) gets you a nicer room (but still with dirty windows) and a free breakfast (well worth having with breakfasts at $30 a go).

By 9:00 in the evening we’re totally jet lagged so it’s off to bed, expecting an early wake up.

Day 2 – boarding

We’re informed that not only has our ship been notified of a random inspection by the Miami coastguard but also there has been an illness onboard which means they need to undertake enhanced sanitation.  Not a good start.

By the time the ship is ready the delay means there is bedlam at the pre-boarding station but one thing is clear as we board, we’re significantly reducing the average age of the group!  Of course that’s understandable as it’s a more expensive cruise and while there seems to be quite a high average age, there are also less young people (….and by that I mean hyperactive kids).

You have to believe that there is a sweet spot somewhere in cruising where the quality of the surroundings and the food matches your expectations and the rest of the guests are of a similar age.  Oceania has the first – that’s for sure – but not the second.  I am not sure whether we have the energy (or the money) to work our way through all the cruise lines so maybe the best way is to just pick one you like and grow into it!

Leaving Miami

Oceania has smaller ships and more intimate surroundings but without cutting out all the amenities that the larger ships have.  With fewer people, there seems to be a lot less crowding (or maybe the ship isn’t full) particularly around meal times and there is a lot less penny pinching (or better said, less money grabbing).  There are no intrusive photographs at every meal time, no charges for soft drinks etc.  But the real highlight is the quality of the food on offer.  We’re a little worried about the impact on waistlines (or more specifically mine!) and it takes real restraint to not be a complete glutton.  Unless you have incredible restraint it’s incredibly easy to gain a few kilos even if you remain active on the cruise so make sure you have a plan to lose that weight once you return home!

Day 3 – Grand Cayman (aborted)

We booked this cruise partly because it makes a detour to Grand Cayman.  However, due to rough weather we’re not going to make it so we’re steaming on directly to the Mexican coast! It was one of the reasons for choosing the cruise but hey-ho, would not have been fun as the seas were very rough and as it was only a tendered landing, we expect that we might have been able to see land but certainly not touch it.

Day 4 – Cozumel

So first stop (on our revised itinerary) is Cozumel which is a small island just off the coast of Mexico with a population of around 100,000.  It’s not your typical Caribbean Island as all of those 100,000 people are clustered around the port area and that makes it somewhat unattractive.  There is very little local industry other than tourism and the island has a feast and famine existence whereby the income is derived almost entirely outside of storm season between December and June when 4-5 ships stop per day.

We’ve booked a tour with a local company called Cozumel Tour Excursions who come highly recommended.  As it’s a private tour it means we get to drive a Jeep with a guide accompanying.  It sounds like a decent bit of fun but actually it’s pretty pointless as the island only has one road so it’s both impossible to get lost and impossible to miss any of the sights.  So tip number 1. If you are coming is think about simply hiring your own vehicle.  If our guide had been a little more interested in explaining some of the local history than gazing at his smart phone we might have a different recommendation …but there it is.

Half the island is inaccessible which means the first part of the journey is away from the main town and a 30 minute drive across the island’s middle.  It’s ok but as the island has a high point just 14 meters about sea level there’s little to be had by way of views.  The east coast of the island is almost entirely undeveloped and there are some spectacular and unspoilt beaches.  We stop off at one for photos and while the water feels very warm, swimming might be a challenge as the surf is very rough – a big contrast to the west coast.

We head down the coast to a nature reserve where there’s the opportunity to see crocodiles (and we do actually see one from a distance) as well as a lighthouse which has some decent views out to the oceans (once you’ve fought your way through the hoard of German tourists).

Final stop of our mini-tour is on the south of the island where we have a traditional Mexican lunch (Fajitas and Quesadillas) as well as some tourist priced beverages.  We’re also able to do a little bit of snorkeling and while it’s not bad I am sure there will be better places to snorkel on our journey.

It’s a decent enough island for a day trip but we will not be rushing to come back.

Dinner!

Evening on the boat and we’ve decided to splash out on a seven course wine matched menu…at an extra price per head of $95 it’s not bad value for money (although less so when one of your party is a non-drinker).  Anyway we’re led on an interesting journey through wine and food pairing and although the food itself is very good, it’s not really a significant step up from the rest of the food on offer.  We enjoy the evening but we wouldn’t recommend it unless you have some serious money burning a hole in your pocket (we had a “free” $1000 on board credit so needed to burn through some money).

Day 5 – Costa Maya

One thing about cruising the Caribbean is that it is not really about culture.  It’s more about enjoying the sun and some island hospitality and of course the beautiful beaches.

Today we’re making an exception.  Number one because we are visiting the mainland rather than an island and number two because we are investing some time in a little local culture with a visit to some Mayan ruins.

Costa Maya (not the towns real name, actually invented for the tourists and opened to cruise ships in 2001), is a small town with a population of around 1,500.  That population is swelled significantly by the arrival of cruise ships.  Apparently the comfortable capacity for the town is two ships, today there are three which are collectively depositing 4-5,000 tourists into the town.

Around the pier there is a small artificial village type complex with lots of shops and bars and a small swimming area.  It all feels a little like it’s trying to be a mini-Disney.  We’re heading out into the, ahem, town (I use the term advisedly as its little more than a few concrete blocks and certainly nowhere to spend significant time) to find our tour company.  As usual we’re not using the ships offer as they are generally at least double the price of booking the same tour locally.  At least by taking the ships tour you are guaranteed not to get left behind but other than that it’s very difficult to say what added value there is other than of course swelling the owner’s coffers.

Our tour is with the native choice and we’ve taken their “extreme” tour which includes a visit to some ruins (Chacchoban) and an afternoon visit to a lagoon.

Ruins at Chacchoban

The ruins are a 45 minute drive out of town and although the road is quite deserted its clear when we get there that this is a very popular (only?) attraction in the area.  The roughly hour long commentary as we tour the site is pretty good but I won’t (and can’t) repeat it all here but if you are interested there’s a very good Wikipedia page on the subject of Mayan culture.

Leaving Costa Maya

A quick lunch stop at a local eatery and we’re heading to our second stop of the day, a very pleasant fresh water lagoon which is exclusively visited by our tour company so were away from the crowds for a little swimming and kayaking before the drive back into town where we’re dropped back at the ship in time for a very civilized afternoon tea!  It’s actually a decent tour, well organized and informative in fact the only gripe I have is the use of the word ‘extreme’ although it’s probably more evocative that “some ruins and a bit of a swim”

Day 6 – Roatan, Honduras

We are packing in the activities today and we’ve booked (another) local tour this time with Roatan Ocean Adventures which is a small locally owned company.

We’re picked up just outside the port at around 8:15 in a well-worn Kia something-or-other by the owner of the business who sets out the activities for the day.  It’s a pretty warm morning so we are very glad that at least the car has functioning aircon.

It turns out that the owner is very pleasant and very talkative and he keeps us regaled over the next four hours with information not only about the island but also about his plans for the business, how he operates as a company, the importance of social media etc.  His philosophies are good (“its not all about the money”) and there is a genuineness that is lacking in some of the larger tour companies.  I wish him and his company well.

Would you zipline here?…..we did!

First stop is a zip line tour run by some friendly locals.  The drive up the hill to the start of the course can only take you so far and the final 100 meters to the top is on an incredibly steep makeshift concrete pathway – definitely not one for the less active (so were not surprised to see that we are the only ones from our ship on the tour).  The zip line itself has 16 stations and the owners are careful about the safety of the guests although looking at the way they fling themselves off the platforms they are less concerned about their own personal safety!  We are less adventurous but have fun nonetheless.

We then drive through the town and head up to a view point where we can see both sides of the island (it is only five miles at its widest point and significantly less at others).

We like a Banana leaf!

Back into town and we stop off at a local iguana retreat where there are lots of ….errrr….iguanas.  While they look quite frightening (and more frightening to one of our party – you know who you are!), they are actually pretty placid animals and quite enjoy being stroked (as much as you can stroke sandpaper!) and they certainly are fond of a banana leaf or two!  More animal interaction follows at a small sanctuary for monkeys and birds.  A small guided tour and the opportunity to interact with the animals is definitely worthwhile.  Leaving a couple of dollars tip does not seem expected but is appreciated.

Final stop of the day is at the ocean and we head out for some snorkeling.  Our guide for the trip knows a lot about the local fish and talks to us enthusiastically about the different species and their particular habits.  We nod politely. The ocean is a bit choppy but once in the water it’s fine and actually the coral reef that surrounds the island is quite spectacular.

Overall Roatan feels a lot more like the Caribbean than our previous two stops and we’ve enjoyed our brief visit here.  Perhaps a place to come back to and spend a little more time in the future.  If you’d like a tour while you are here we can thoroughly recommend our guide and his company.

Day 7 – St Tomas, Guatemala

This one is a little off the beaten track and our cruise ship docks at the commercial port where the facilities are somewhat underdeveloped (understatement).  This means that organizing an activity might be better thought about in advance although there are some limited opportunities to book something locally.

We booked a boat tour in advance with Happy Fish which at $59 each was once again a lot cheaper that the corresponding activities available through the ship.

Essentially there are three options (or realistically two as the air based tours are prohibitively expensive) which are either land based or by boat.  We opted for the boat and from what we heard from other guests the bus trip was hard work involving a 90 minute drive on uneven roads in each direction.

The boat trip takes a 40 minute trip across the harbor at speed before a trip down the Rio Dulce River.  Our boat was pretty full (roughly 20 people) but didn’t feel crowded at any point although with varying degree of physical ability on the boat I wonder whether it’s really suitable for those with less mobility as getting in and out of the boat is clearly a struggle for some.

The trip down the river is quite nice and there’s lots of wildlife to see and the stop offs give a taste of the local culture.  One of the stops off is at a local school which itself is quite interesting as it shows that Guatemala is a hotch potch of cultures although we could have done without the lengthy commentaries (but that may be just us).  There is a fair bit of walking which did not seem to have been explained to our group who variously asked about taking taxis or not walking at all!

Overall Guatemala has more the feeling of South America rather than Caribbean and while our brief stop off here has given us a good flavor of the region it hasn’t given us a great desire to come back.

Day 8 – Harvest Caye, Belize

If you are anything like us, Harvest Caye is one of those places that makes your heart sink a little.

In essence the Caye is a man-made offshore Island set some way off the coast of Belize that, if I were being cynical, has been developed by the cruise lines as a way to extract money from willing (and unwilling) customers.

It is described here in detail.  Essentially what we have here is a small island with a number of eating establishments, a beach with some man-made sand (very unpleasant, very grainy not at all nice to walk on), some very tame things to do (kayaking and some rather silly little electric boats for the habitually lazy).  The zip-lining looked ok but compared to that available on the mainland, ridiculously over-priced at $65 a spin.

The overpricing does not stop there.  There are small beach huts available for hire at $500 per day (yes, you read that right) and covered deck chairs a mere snip at $200 per day.  The small huts seemed to be quite popular which brings to mind the phrase “more money than sense”.

Given that the island is not accessible to locals or others from the mainland and that it only has capacity for one ship when our ship deposited its measly 1,200 passengers (compared to the 6,000 person monsters) the island felt both underused and overstaffed (six lifeguards looking over the empty swimming pool).

We did our bit.  We wandered around took a kayak out and dipped our toes in the water.  But after two hours we had exhausted the possibilities so we headed back to the boat for an afternoon of lazing and eating.

We won’t have this on our list of places to return.

Day 9 – At sea

We’re spending the day catching up with our paddle tennis and frothy coffees.

Day 10 – Florida Keys

Our preparation for Florida Keys feels unnecessarily drawn out as we’re required to clear US customs (as the first place of landing back in the US), this means, over a period of several days, various documents and communications are deposited in our room (customs clearance papers, requirement to print our ESTA’s).  Having completed all the documents we are then required to present ourselves for physical inspection on the boat before we can get off.  It seems unnecessarily bureaucratic but then who said immigration policy is either logical or fair in the US.

Florida Keys is the end point of US and the home of Ernest Hemmingway.  The center contains all of the clapboard charm one would expect and our morning tour with key lime bike tours helps give us a good flavor of the local history and characters.  This is less a bike tour rather a walking tour for the lazy (as there is rarely more than a couple of hundred meters between stops.  As is generally the case I feel there is a little too much talking but overall it’s an ok tour although relatively close to lots of tourists and tourist traffic which increases the risk of accident (one of our party has a closer encounter than he would like with Key West).

Key West is actually quite small so after the tour we don’t feel we’ve actually missed much so we pop back to look at some of the shops we might have missed and buy some obligatory Key Lime souvenirs.  I think a drive along the length of the Keys would be an interesting thing to tick off the list of things to do.

Day 11 – At sea and back to Miami

We’ve another day at sea before we arrive back into Miami and reflect on the cruise.  We have some time at the end of our trip and before our flight back home to take a quick tour of Miami.  There are some good hop-on-hop-off buses and we decide to take one of those taking in Miami Beach and surrounding areas (including some very expensive real estate!).  Maybe it was not designed for us or maybe we did not give it enough time but its difficult to see what the fuss is about but it feels a lot like a place where you like to tell people you are rather than where you actually want to be.  I am sure others will point me to the errors of my ways!

Conclusions

We’ve cruised previously to the Eastern Caribbean (which I will add to the blog once time permits), and from the perspective of ports of call that was a vastly more enjoyable experience.  Aside from Roatan, the ports of call this time are nowhere near the same standard and for people like us where time ashore is more important than time on the ship it’s difficult to see why the area is so popular.  So I am pretty sure we won’t be back.

We’re nevertheless very pleased with Oceania and with Marina.  It’s a good sized ship which does not feel crowded but is sufficiently sized that it has all the amenities you might require.  In this case we were also lucky with a free balcony upgrade.  We particularly liked the opportunity to have dinner in a different spot each evening and to meet lots of different people.  Although the average age is over our ideal profile that is certainly not a deal breaker.  We like the ship so much we’ve book on the same vessel for another location next year.  Watch this space.

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