Thursday, March 18, 2010

Nearly Ten Years Later: My First Cruise

As I'm planning on taking my boyfriend on his first cruise in just over two months, and because we are also seriously considering a cruise in Europe for next year, I thought it would be a good idea to remember the first cruise I ever took. Mind you, I sailed on this cruise nearly ten years ago--August 13, 2000, to be exact--so my memories are a bit clouded with the passage of time.

I was 17 years old the first time I cruised, and of course it was my parents who planned the trip. I've never really asked them why they chose the way they did--they had never been on a cruise either, and the cruise we took was not one that many cruise newbies would attempt. It was a week-long, port-heavy Southern Caribbean schedule that sailed round trip from San Juan, Puerto Rico--which meant long flights there and back, with three children (ages 17, 15, and 12).

Myself and Christy with our awesome waiter. I wish I could remember his name!
My grandparents also joined us on this cruise, which visited St. Thomas, St. Maarten, Antigua, St. Lucia, and Barbados, and rounded out the itinerary with a single day at sea. Thankfully, we weren't stuck in inside cabins, and we had three rooms total--my sisters and I in one, my parents in another, my grandparents in a third--but things were still tight. Our rooms were on the lowest deck available to the public, and our window was a tiny porthole that served one purpose--seeing whether or not it was light or dark, sunny or cloudy. The ship wasn't new in 2000 and the window had aged past its prime of us being able to see any sort of scenery from it.

Of course I don't mean to sound as if I'm complaining. Although the window and the room itself were small and a bit crowded, this cruise on Royal Caribbean's Monarch of the Seas was still one of the best vacations I've ever taken, mainly in terms of service and food. There were also some great ports (including many that you would not get to visit on a regular old Eastern or Western Caribbean cruise leaving from a Florida port), namely St. Thomas (for the shopping), Antigua (for the beaches/snorkeling) and St. Lucia (for the scenery).

On the catamaran for our amazing Antigua excursion
Being 17, I also got to take place in the youth activities, which were plentiful and fun. I was still somewhat shy at the time of this cruise, but the youth activities director made participation in the activities and meeting other teens easy. My 15-year-old sister and I met some great people, some of whom I still keep in touch with (albeit sporadically). Now, this being such a different itinerary, I have a feeling that the number of teens on board was far less than Royal Caribbean would usually have for a cruise departing from a US port, and I'm sure that had a lot to do with how close our group became. Still, based on my experience, I can't say enough wonderful things about Royal Caribbean's youth program.

I previously mentioned the high quality of both the food and the service on this ship. Although ten years has gone by, I still remember the name of our waiter (Jamal) and how awesome he was. He knew all of our names, always commented on the fact that my father and I often ordered two desserts each, and was a very entertaining person in general. And the food that he served us was absolutely divine. To this day, I have not had a piece of cheesecake as light, fluffy, and delicious as the marble cheesecake we had for dessert one night, and the baked Alaska was far superior to the baked Alaska on my Princess Cruise (which was in Alaska!).

Sailing away from St. Lucia
Other than the minuscule size of our stateroom and its porthole window, the only other complaint I had about this cruise is some of the ports--or rather, some of the excursions at those ports. In St. Thomas, we did our own thing and just shopped--that was fine. In Antigua, we took a tour through the cruise line that involved a nice long catamaran ride and snorkeling off a tiny private island--that was nothing short of amazing. In St. Lucia, we grabbed a minivan cab and had the local driver show us the island sights--that was interesting, but certainly not bad. The aforementioned ports/excursions that were sub-par were St. Maarten and the shopping/beach tour we booked through Royal Caribbean, and Barbados and the Atlantis submarine excursion.

(Just a note: You know something was bad when I remember specific details of it nearly ten years after I experienced it!)

With some of the awesome girls that I met through the teen group on the cruise
The problem with St. Maarten was that it was dirty. Oh, I'm sure the beaches and the edge of Philipsburg are just lovely, but the tour we took drove us through the outskirts of the city to a disgusting pier. We then boarded a two-decker "party boat" that took us across a murky lagoon to Marigot on the French side of the island. Supposedly Marigot has some amazing shopping--I wouldn't know, because the cruise line forgot to inform us that we were visiting St. Maarten during some obscure French holiday, and all but one or two stores in Marigot were closed that day. Which meant that we spent most of the time we had there (I want to say it was about an hour and a half) sitting around doing, you guessed it, nothing. Very poor planning, especially as this was back before the times when there were a million message boards to tell you that you would be in St. Maarten over a holiday.

After our failed shopping trip, the party boat took us to a "private island"--which was smack in the middle of the murky lagoon that we had crossed to get to Marigot. The water was dirty and smelly. We tried to snorkel, but we couldn't see anything--and beyond that, we felt disgusting even swimming or wading in it. After about ten minutes, my sisters and I--the only ones who had been brave enough to get off the party boat and attempt to enjoy ourselves--boarded it again and merely sat around waiting for this awful excursion to end.

We stayed up all night and watched the sun rise over the Caribbean.
Barbados was the last port of call on our cruise, and unfortunately, it was pouring rain for most of the day. I completely understand that the people running the submarine don't control the weather, but there are no amazing reefs or anything just off the coast of Barbados, so not only was the water very cloudy, but there really weren't many interesting fish to be seen, anyway. This was really just a boring experience, and because we chose this excursion we missed seeing any part of the island other than the port.

In conclusion, after years of travel and now three cruises under my belt, I still remember Royal Caribbean as having the best service and food, and when we started discussing a European cruise for 2011, I knew that it had to be with Royal Caribbean. Not that I had a bad time on my Carnival or Princess cruises--I would go with either of those lines again, as well. I think only a second cruise on Royal Caribbean will solidify my opinion that they are the best out there for that price range and cause me to be a true Royal Caribbean aficionado.  So here's hoping for that chance in just over a year ::fingers crossed::

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