Thanksgiving 2017: An Epic Cruise
Thanksgiving, a time for family, friends, and cruising? Tradition dictates you host large groups of people you are bound to by blood and cook absurd amounts of food, but what happens when you would rather be sitting on a beach waited on hand and foot instead? Book a cruise!
First, a bit about myself. I’m in my late 30’s and on my second marriage, with no biological children of my own. I have a 15-year-old stepson who sometimes spends holidays with his biological mother, which allows my husband (also in his late 30’s) and I to cruise as a childless couple a time or two per year. We work hard, and we covet our time off as an opportunity to mentally turn it all off and relax.
Months ago, my DH and I booked a Norwegian cruise to depart over Thanksgiving week. It sailed out of Cape Canaveral, Florida on a Saturday to Saturday itinerary. The original ports of call included Tortola, St. Thomas, Nassau, and Great Stirrup Cay.
We held countdowns for months, reserving a rental car, using our Marriott points to book a room for the night before we sailed. Then, on August 25, 2017, mother nature reminded us she is powerful and unforgiving. Hurricane Harvey decimated parts of the Caribbean and Florida, only to be followed by Maria, devastating already hard-hit areas already reeling from the first wave of hurricane season. We were glued to the news stations (as most were), sadness felt for those that lost their hard-earned material belongings. There’s a saying that we often hear when mother nature takes it all away, “material items can be replaced.” Although I agree with this statement, people work hard all their lives to build up those materialistic items.
We soon learned our ports of call would be changed to Falmouth Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Nassau and Great Stirrup Cay. We did some research and planned excursions. Most cruisers book directly with the cruise line for fear of becoming a statistic… The dreaded “pier runner”! If you don’t know what a pier runner is, I will pause here so you can now click on YouTube and spend the next hour watching video after video of people yelling at mega cruise ships while running helplessly down a pier, flapping their arms as if it could make a difference in their outcome, all while the ship gets further away from them.
Now that you’re back from the depths of YouTube (probably far from the pier runner videos you started off with, having taken a hard left at cute cat videos), we get to the tortuous countdown. Time seemed to tick away slowly. We watched ship videos, looked at room tours, and continued to research things to do in each port. One of the go-to places we look for things to do is shoreexcursioner.com, and have used them multiple times with great success. They have a cancellation policy, should the ship not dock at the scheduled port, and they guarantee you back on board, so you don’t have to become a pier runner yourself. Our second go-to place is resortforaday.com. When you work as many hours as my husband and I do, you like to use vacations to relax. Resortforaday.com allows you to book a day pass to an otherwise land-based destination resort, and get access to all of its amenities, depending on the type of pass you purchase.
Tick tock, tick tock, time always seems to go by so slowly when you have a vacation to get started, doesn’t it?
The day before the cruise was finally upon us!
The flight: Southwest Airlines for the win! If you have never flown the friendly skies, I recommend you start. They have some of the best prices, and still allow two free checked bags and a carry-on per person. Are you a customer of size? “Fluffy”, like my husband and I are? No worries, check out their customers of size policy. You can even usually call and get the extra seat at no cost up front. We opted to pay for the extra seat and get our refund later, because we have used this option without difficulty in the past. We also opted to pay for the early bird check-in. You pay $15 per seat, but you also get a drink coupon and board with the A group.
The car rental: National is amazing! My husband’s work allows personal bookings using the corporate discount code. National has something called Emerald Club, where any car in the Emerald Aisle is fair game. We usually pay dirt cheap pieces for an SUV. You can’t beat that, but the best part is never having to wait at a ticket counter. We just walk right to the vehicle we want, load it up, and off we go.
The hotel: We used our Marriott reward points to book a room at Marriott Lake Nona. We had a late flight, and decided we only needed it as a place to get some rest the night before our cruise. The hotel was well-kept, with friendly staff and a comfortable bed. The shower was HUGE!
The cruise: We wanted to splurge on ourselves a bit, so we decided to book a Haven room aboard the Norwegian Epic. What is the Haven you ask? The Haven is a jaw-dropping experience, and a reminder of how far a poor child living in the Rio Grande Valley always knew she would come. You see, I grew up as a child of parents who made a combined income of $15k a year, and I knew the only way to rise out of poverty would be through education and hard work.
Embarkation: We arrived at the Port Canaveral cruise terminal, where the Norwegian Epic had arrived from a transatlantic cruise. This meant there would be extra wait time to board the ship, due to increased customs checks for those getting off of it. Now, I was mentally prepared for the wait. What I wasn’t prepared for was the utter chaos at the cruise terminal. There were hoards of people everywhere. We were directed to a line, and my warning bells immediately started going off. From all of my research online, I knew that if you booked a Haven room, you would be fast-tracked to the front of the line. My husband and I decided to find a staff member that would verify which line we needed to be in. Sure enough, we found a friendly gentleman that took one look at our boarding papers and pointed us to a line of about 15 people, which was not properly marked. We stood in line a little more, and were lead up to the security area. The group was placed the wrong line once again, but it was quickly resolved, and we were through the metal detectors within 10 minutes.
The terminal: Be prepared for a lot of people. Don’t hesitate to ask employees to direct you to the proper lines. We made our way to the Haven check-in and waited in yet another line. Sense a theme here? After about 45 minutes, we were checked in by a friendly young agent. She handed us our key cards, and we proceeded to the entry point. From this point on things, move as quickly as you can get your feet to move your body up the gangway. We made our way to the elevators, where we saw a large crowd gathered, but also noticed an NCL agent holding a door open on the last elevator in the bank. I knew, based on what I had read, that it had to be the dedicated Haven elevator. Sure enough, it was! We were escorted to the Haven section. Our key cards were required to enter any Haven-exclusive area. We proceeded to our room, which was spacious and beautiful! It was also a bit warm, but we noticed the prior tenants had been using the heater instead of the air conditioning. I adjusted the temperature, setting it as cold as it would go, but in the end, we still needed a fan, which NCL was able to provide for us.
The Haven: For those that don’t know what the Haven is, let me try to explain it. In one word, EXCLUSIVE. A limited number of cabins are in this area. You have your own bar, restaurant, pool, fitness club, steam room, and the ability to call a priority elevator, as well as an additional Haven-only elevator that dumps you out right onto the lido deck. You get a butler that will cater to your every whim 24/7. You get access to concierge services that will handle all your excursion and show bookings. The concierge will also escort you to all of your shows in advance, and take you around all of the long line areas, through the employee-only entrance. You get a mini behind-the-scenes tour in the process. As part of the Haven package, you will also get snacks delivered to your room each day. We had meats, cheeses, fruits and sandwich trays. Overall, I would highly recommend trying the Haven experience at least once in your cruising life if you can.
Ports of Call:
Falmouth Jamaica: We decided to book The Hilton Rose Hall in Jamaica through resort for a day, which included transportation and all of the amenities, such as unlimited alcohol, food, and non-motorized water equipment. The property is beautifully maintained, and has water slides and a lazy river, plenty of beach, and local vendors.
Grand Cayman: This is a tender port, and we opted not to book anything here this time, as we’ve been to this port numerous times. However, I highly recommend the stingray sandbar if you’ve never been. Yes, it is swimming with stingrays, like the one that killed Steve Erwin, but the likelihood of this happening is slim. It is an amazing experience, and you will not regret it. We have booked this excursion through shoreexcursioneer.com for a fraction of the price the cruise line wanted to charge. You will all end up at the same place, whether you book through the cruise line or some other site. Some people choose to book through the ship’s site to have peace of mind. For me, I still manage to get that from these alternate sites.
Nassau, Bahamas: This port’s main attraction is Atlantis. We again decided not to book anything at this port, but have booked Atlantis by using resort for a day, at a fraction of the cost the cruise line wanted to charge.
Great stirrup cay: This is a tender port owned by NCL. We booked a clam shell chair with canopy on the beach. Did we drink too much the day before and wake up really late the day of this port? Yes! Did we decide to take advantage of the near empty ship instead? You bet!
Cruising is not for old people anymore. It is an evolving industry that is trying to cater to younger generations. We love that it is a way to sample different destinations, so you can get ideas for where to potentially make a future land-based trip. If you haven’t already dabbled in cruising, give it a try! Book a cruise, you might just become a cruise addict, as I did.