Caribbean Cruise – Yes, 12 discounted days are just as tropical!
We had a travel window of opportunity in late January with no conflicts so we decided to look for deals and get out of the Denver cold and snow. Using the VacationsToGo website and their 90-day ticker, we found a great deal on a 12 day Costa Cruise out of Miami. It pays to be able to travel on short notice as we got over 80% off the standard price and that included the port charges. We departed on January 23 for 12 tropical days with 8 ports of call!
Some people love cruises and some insist they would neeeever.
There are definitely pluses and minuses. Some find them confining and monotonous. Some find them too regimented. We wouldn’t want every vacation to be a cruise, but we like them for many reasons:
- Very little planning compared to some trips (like Thailand, 10 lodgings, 6 flights, 5 weeks-next trip)!
- Unpack once yet see lots of places – it’s like a floating hotel
- Shore stops are brief, but a great way to scope out places for a potential longer future stay
- You can book an organized excursion or do your own thing … or just stay on board
- We find the food to be usually quite good (certainly better than our home cooking)
- Lots to do, especially if you want to try new things
- You can be social and make new friends or be in your own little twosome (sort of)
Previously, though not recently, we have cruised with Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, and Windstar (a truly special experience). This was our first time on a Costa Cruise.
The Miami airport was recently rated one of the worst in the country.
We can’t dispute that claim to fame, but the good news is that once you get through it and claim your bags, it’s just a quick $25 taxi ride to the cruise port. And if your ship has a late departure time as ours did (11pm), it’s one of the few airports in the country that you can safely fly on the day of departure (but it’s still a little risky). The Miami skyline sure is pretty at night…from the deck of a cruise ship.
Cruise ship cabins are compact and efficient, but about triple the size we’re used to on a sailboat. We really don’t spend a lot of time in them – just for sleeping, showering, and changing clothes. We found our bed comfortable and our cabin steward (Simon) friendly and thorough.
A cruise ship is really a bustling small city
It’s truly incredible to consider the details for provisioning, food prep, cleaning, laundry, entertainment, guest requests and logistics that go on 24 hours a day. There are really no excuses for boredom – choose between the workout facilities, the spa, the casino, swimming, shopping, the game rooms, trivia contests, the library, pool games, or just lounging with a drink and good book. On this ship, there was also the world’s slowest water slide where you have to push yourself along to get to the bottom. Too bad because Tom really enjoys slides. We got into gin rummy as our game of choice for the majority of the cruise. Plus, we found a German version of Scrabble to check out from the library – the letters had some interesting point values (10 points for a Y? only 3 points for Z?).
Just scoping out the outlandish Italian décor and artwork of the ship is worth a walking tour. Somebody needs to explain the dozens of upside down cherubs spread-eagle with full genitalia in the Casanova Lounge. They caused a stir of hushed giggles and raised eyebrows.
In the evenings, there is entertainment everywhere to suit most tastes
…piano bars, a disco, dance bands, reggae/calypso bands and lounge singers with astonishing sound barriers between each area. The giant 1000 seat theater has two shows a night. They mix it up with magicians, acrobats, opera singers, and showgirls – not Las Vegas quality, but truly enjoyable.
The food on a cruise ship is bountiful and varied
We heard several complaints from cruising veterans that the food was not up to par on this cruise. Even Costa regulars thought it was below average. We’re lousy cooks, so we’re always happy to sample foods that we don’t cook ourselves. Like all cruise ships, there was plenty to choose from at the breakfast and lunch buffets. Or you could choose a sit-down breakfast or lunch in the dining room, but we rarely had time for that during port days. Fish, meats, salads, cheeses, pasta, dessert, and more made it easy to stay full.
For dinner, the only option is sit-down dining at your designated time – ours was 6:30 pm and the other option was 9 pm. We enjoyed the earlier time, although it was sometimes a challenge to get to our dinner on time (with dry hair) after a full day of touring at port. Some cruise lines have open seating so you have a different table and different dinner companions every night. On Costa, we were assigned a table for the duration of the cruise so we had the same waiters (Rajeev and Prasad) the whole time. We were also fortunate to truly enjoy our 4 delightful dinner companions. You get to know them pretty well when you have dinner together 12 nights in a row. We even had a famous actor as our Maitre d’.
She said: I was packing light until I realized we needed 12 dinner outfits!
This cruise itinerary had 8 ports of call
You have to have the right mindset when going ashore. You can’t do everything so it’s best to do some research and plan ahead or you can be overwhelmed by all the options. Don’t try to do too much. One of our biggest goals was to get a feel for each island to see if we would want to return there for an extended stay. The cruise offers organized tours per port with everything from active sports like scuba, snorkeling, sailing, ATVs, waterfall hikes, and volcano climbs or more leisurely historical, shopping, or cultural tours. You always have the option to just walk around the local port, hire a taxi and driver for all or part of a day, or rent a car and explore on your own. One advantage of a cruise sponsored excursion is that the ship will wait for you if your excursion returns late. A disadvantage is that you are stuck with the tour even if the weather is lousy.
Freeport, Bahamas (English)
We read that Freeport is not rated very highly as a cruise stop – it’s largely industrial with a huge shipping container operation. Our plan was to take a taxi to a beach resort for the day. At breakfast that morning we saw cloudy skies, threatening rain, and strong winds. Since we hadn’t paid for an excursion, we didn’t feel bad about just wandering around the local touristy port, sampling a coconut rum drink, and buying a couple of souvenirs.
Nassau, Bahamas (English)
We chose to take a combo tour of the city sites by bus which included stops at their historic fort and a couple of observation points. They did their best, but there really isn’t much to see.
Later, the tour stopped at the Ardastra Zoo and Gardens, famous for their “trained” marching flamingos (some taller than Sheila). The zoo was small, specializing in birds, but still interesting.
Samana, Dominican Republic (Spanish)
We were tempted by the zipline tour which was reviewed favorably as the best in the Caribbean. Instead we chose to go on a combination whale watching excursion and beach break. We got fairly close to a mom and calf humpback whales, and later 4 males in a pack (we took the guide’s word for it on their sex). After a 10 minute break, just when we thought they all must have sneaked away from us, suddenly one of the whales decided to get some serious air time (just like in those Pacific Life Insurance TV commercials) followed by the expected tremendous splash. Fortunately, he didn’t land on any boats. Unfortunately, due to the long lull, nobody had their camera ready for the peak action.
Part two of our Dominican Republic excursion took us to the island of Cayo Levantado, a private island with a resort on one side and a popular private beach (used exclusively by cruise ships) with a few shacks set up for drinks and BBQ and water toys. The beach was okay if you ignored all the floating seaweed in the water and the snorkeling was lacking for sights, but the palm trees and lounge chairs were quite nice and the drinks were tasty.
Tortola, British Virgin Islands (English)
We vacationed in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) as part of our first bareboat sailing experience and loved it. So, since we had already been to Virgin Gorda to see the Baths (we highly recommend) and had seen other parts of Tortola, we decided to arrange some diving. After some research, we chose Sail Caribbean Divers and were treated quite well by Kina, Nick, and Peter. They arranged a two tank dive at The Indians and Angelfish Reef near Norman (a.k.a Treasure) Island. The diving was just OK: lots of colorful sponges, a couple of turtles, but few fish, and average visibility. Second dive was better than the first, but our camera battery was dead. Amateur move! We rushed back to the ship after diving, and unfortunately had no time to explore the port and capital city of Roadtown.
Sint Maarten (Dutch) / Saint Martin (French)
This is the smallest island in the world that shares two countries (in this case with the same name ignoring the spelling). We docked in Phillipsburg on Sint Maarten (the Dutch side) and took an $8/person taxi to Orient Beach in Saint Martin on the French side. This is a famous and popular beach. For twenty dollars, you get two chairs and a beach umbrella. Several beach huts sold food and tasty rum concoctions. People were easygoing and we made new friends! There is a very well-marked dividing line on the beach with signs. On the south side, clothing is optional and photos are not allowed. Parasailing and jet skiing were also available. We didn’t have time to explore much of Phillipsburg, but we liked the overall vibe and look of this island. It is high on our list to return for an extended stay.
Lots of options to choose from in Antigua. We arranged to share a car rental with another brave couple, Bobbie and Jim, and tour the island together. Renting the car was relatively easy, finding our way around proved to be a little tougher. It’s amazing how one relies on GPS these days, but when it’s not available and streets are not well-marked, then you get to see places you hadn’t intended – nothing bad, just off-the-path local neighborhoods. Plus, they drive on the left side of the road here. Tom’s really good at it (many weeks in Scotland), but it still requires more focus, making sightseeing a little tougher. Anyway, we did manage to find Nelson’s Dockyard and toured the marina with its massive gorgeous yachts, and later headed for Hawksbill Bay beach. The beach is gorgeous, nearly half a mile long, mostly deserted, and clothing optional. Because there were so few folks, taking pictures was OK to do. The sea was fairly turbulent so swimming was only safe in one sheltered cove, but we truly enjoyed Hawksbill and the company of our new friends…could have stayed much longer. During our journey back to port, we got stuck in traffic while meandering through a street market filled with locals on a Friday payday. After finally getting our rental checked in, we returned to the ship with 10 minutes to spare before departure!
Departure from Antigua’s port of St. John’s was at sunset with great views of the port city and coast.
St. Kitts (English)
Our advanced research paid off in St. Kitts. It got raves for the diving so that’s what we planned and we were so glad we did! The cruise ship did not offer a diving excursion so we reserved our own with Dive St. Kitts based on their nearly unanimous positive reviews. A driver picked us up right near the pier at the port of Basseterre for a short 10 minute trip to the dive shop. They geared us up and Tony showed us a detailed diagram of the dive sites that we would be visiting (a very nice touch).
There were only 4 of us diving and the other couple was very nice. We had two beautiful dives with calm seas, lots of fish, good visibility, ship wrecks, turtles, rays, eels – Tony clearly loves his job and was full of personality. After the dives we enjoyed a fun chat with the other dive couple and they shared lots of reasons they love visiting St. Kitts. We’ll be sure to return!
St. Kitts features a nice clean port with lots of shopping. It looked like there were plenty of other options for fun excursions. Folks were friendly, roads were good, and we just got a good overall feeling about the place. Our dinner companions also enjoyed their day and sang the island’s praises. We will definitely keep St. Kitts in mind for an extended stay in the future.
After diving, there was enough time for a pretty sunset on deck before dinner.
The port city of Pointe-a-Pitre was by far the biggest and most populated of any of the cruise stops. Guadeloupe is a larger island too and has a population of nearly a half million people. It’s also very French and caters its tourist industry to France. Very little English is spoken, especially by the taxi drivers, and for some reason their rates are significantly higher here. While trying to communicate with our potential driver that we wanted to go to Sainte Anne beach, we were fortunate to bump into two other cruisers with the same goal, and one of them spoke French. We chose to share a taxi with these two gentlemen and as we were sharing stories and getting to know them, they revealed they are Camaldolese Benedictine monks from San Francisco, on a brief vacation. We totally enjoyed our time with them – it was interesting to hear about their lives and their lifestyle. It was raining hard at the port, but the taxi driver assured us that it would be sunny at the beach – we were skeptical, but he was correct. The traffic getting to Sainte Anne beach was very heavy in spite of the fact that it was a Sunday with many businesses closed.
So, we spent the afternoon at the beach with charming monks!
Finally arriving at the beach, it was very pretty with nice soft sand, loads of palm trees and calm clear waters. It was also bustling with French tourists. There were plenty of food and drink options (with menus only in French). The snorkeling was just OK, but it felt great to be in the warm water, esp. since it was our last port stop. One of our new friends grew up near Milan, Italy and had spent very little time in the sea, so he shared with us that he’s very uncomfortable getting in the water (OK, deathly afraid), but it was so calm here, he chose to wade in up to his waist and asked Sheila to take photos to prove it. After only a couple of hours in the sun, it was time to make our way back to the ship, and sure enough, it was raining hard when we got there. Our day at St. Anne Beach is a special memory.
You definitely should avoid cruises if you are a television addict. Viewing options are very limited (although they do show some decent movies). Sheila didn’t even discover the lack of TV options until about day 8. After booking the trip, Tom discovered that there was a conflict with the Super Bowl. Had his Broncos still been in contention, this might have been a disaster. Fortunately, Costa arranged to broadcast the game on a big screen in one of the large lounges. Dozens of guests were watching with equal sides rooting for Seattle or New England. It was nice for the ship to arrange this.
Something we did not expect on a Caribbean cruise was the variety of spoken languages among the guests on board. This is because Costa is a very popular cruise line in Europe. Of the 2200 passengers (capacity 2600), only 700 of them spoke English (about 30%). Italian, French, and German were very prominent among passengers, and a few spoke Spanish. The ship’s officers were mostly Italian, the servers and cabin stewards mostly from India or the Philippines, and while most of the crew spoke at least a little English, it was rarely their native language. It made for fun opportunities to interact with folks from other countries. One annoying aspect was that every important ship announcement over the ship’s loudspeakers had to be repeated five times, once for each language. But it was impressive to watch the cruise director (and some other staff) introduce the stage shows in each language in very fluent rapid fire fashion.
We are not frequent cruisers, but we enjoyed this cruise. We talked to many other passengers who are frequent cruisers who would rate Costa a notch below the other major cruise lines like Norwegian, Carnival, Princess, and Royal Caribbean. Some speculated that since the infamous Costa Concordia cruise ship sank off the coast of Italy a couple years ago, they have had to cut back. Examples include: no lobster night (a cruise tradition), no midnight chocolate buffet, and fewer guest services.
From our perspective, it would have been nice for planning purposes to have known in advance what the theme nights were for dressing up. We knew there would be at least 2 formal nights and we were prepared for that. But even though we searched on their website, there was no indication that there would be a White night or an Italian night (Red, White, and/or Green). Sending us that info with our reservation confirmations seems like an easy oversight to fix. We liked Costa’s no smoking rules for indoor areas. Smoking is allowed in designated outside areas, usually just one side of the pool. That would be fine if they enforced the rules – but they didn’t.
Internet access on the ship was a problem. It is available but very intermittent, slow, and ridiculously expensive at $30 per hour. We’ve read articles that the cruise industry is working to improve in this area. With the way the world is connected today, it should be a priority for them, especially if they want to attract a new generation of cruisers (and travel bloggers).
And here’s one completely separate thought regarding Frontier Airlines. We used to love them with their cute animals on the tails of their planes, and their fun advertising campaigns. Now we just think of them as the airline that will nickel and dime you to death:
- Increased bag fees (and extra fees if you wait until check-in)
- Fees for carry-on bags are even higher than checked bags
- Charge for soft drinks and water!
- Extra charge just to reserve a seat
And … they don’t honor TSA pre-check. Phhbbtt! Also, there is no internet service available on the plane, something we still see as a nice bonus, but appreciated. We’ll certainly weigh these negatives against their low fares next time. Thanks for your indulgence…rant over.
So, overall we enjoyed our Caribbean cruise and it was a heck of deal.
Another advantage for romance seekers is that longer cruises during the school year typically mean fewer kids are traveling. Kinda nice for quieter pool time. If Costa offered another great deal to ports we’re interested in visiting, we’d consider it, but more likely we will try a different cruise line next time.
A few more memories…
Trip Date: January 2015