Saturday, June 11, 2016

My First Experience of Cruise Trip to Cozumel (Mexico) and Key West (USA) - March 2016

The idea of cruise vacation had not appealed to me so far.  I always used to feel  as to what is so great about spending days on the ship for a couple of destinations that too more like a day trip. My idea of travelling is to explore the places I plan to visit without much of a time constraint.
In my recent trip to USA for spending sometime with my daughter and son-in-law, it was decided to go on a 5-night cruise trip to Cozumel (Mexico) and Key West (USA) during a short spring break for the school in the USA in end-March 2016. After some initial hiccups, my wife and I decided to join the cruise, more for a diversion from spending time in the house to the ship. My son-in-law and daughter who had an earlier experience of cruise trip to Bahamas convinced us that  there were lot of activities available on board to keep us busy throughout the day.  We picked up Celebrity Cruise and did the reservation online  for 5-day cruise departing on March 28th from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida on 'Celebrity Constellation'.
We drove from Richmond (VA) To Ft. Lauderdale (Florida), a distance of about 950 miles (1520 kms). The idea was to reach Ft. Lauderdale by evening and stay overnight in a hotel near the port. The reporting time for check-in at the port was 12 noon the next day. However, due to heavy rains which lasted for more than an hour, driving at the regular speed was not possible. We had to take a night halt in a hotel at Ft. Pierce,  about 35 kms short of Ft. Lauderdale.
Day-1 : Check-in and Embankment
Next day, after the breakfast, we departed Ft. Pierce and reached Ft. Lauderdale on time for check-in. Our cruise ship 'Celebrity Constellation; was anchored at Terminal-4. The procedures for check-in, immigration and security check were almost the same as that for the international passengers in the airport. Our baggage were tagged and taken separately to be loaded on the ship which would be delivered in our rooms on the ship.
After immigration and giving a declaration in writing  on health issues, we were given a boarding pass by way of smart cards which would be our 'all-in-one card'  for the 5-night cruise - opening our room door, as a photo identity card for visiting all the facilities available on the ship, like restaurants, swimming pools, library, casino, auditorium  and also as a credit card for any extra expenses not covered in the package.
We boarded the ship through one of the two aerobridges that were attached to the ship. We were welcomed by the crew members  of the ship with glass of Champagne.
Since our rooms were getting ready, we were directed to Oceanview Café, a multi-cuisine restaurant,  for a buffet lunch. Lunch menus was very good which included some Indian menus also. After lunch, we took rest for about 2 hours as the ship was to depart Ft. Lauderdale at 4.00 p.m.
We all gathered at Deck-11 just before the departure of the ship to observe as to how the ship will sail through from the backwater of the port to the sea. It took about 20 minutes for the ship to be directed from the harbour to the main sea.

The  ship 'CELEBRITY CONSTELLATION'  in which we spent 5-nights for Western Caribbean Sea cruise. Salient Features of the Ship : 1950 Tourists, 976 Crew Members, 12 Decks, 12 Elevators,1085 rooms, two swimming pools, a multilayer auditorium, 9 restaurants/cafes/dinning rooms, shopping malls, jogging track, etc

Terminal-4 of Fort Lauderdale harbour, located about 20 kms before Miami. The boarding of the ship is through aero bridge on Deck-1.

View from Deck-11 as aero bridge (right down) is being detached from the ship.  The dark orange line on the deck is the jogging track. The full round of jogging track is about 1 km.

View from the ship of Fort Lauderdale harbour.
With the sailing of the ship in the sea at its normal speed (may be at a speed of 25-30 knots), my experience of vacation on a cruise commenced.  We were now on the ship for over 4 hours and my experience so far has been beyond my expectations. The ship was sailing very smoothly. In fact, I found it was much smoother than air journey with almost no shakes which could have otherwise created  some motion sickness. Our rooms were big with a king size bed,  a sofa-cum-bed and study table. There was enough space to move inside the room. The bathroom was fairly large with 24 hours hot water.
There were six restaurants and 3 pool side cafes. In fact one can have food anytime during 24 hours as some or the other restaurants/cafes will always be found opened during the day and night. A few hours of stroll on a number of decks convinced me that there were activities for tourists of  all the age group to keep them sufficiently engaged during the day. There is a gym, there is a basket ball court, table tennis, two swimming pools with whirlpools, library, shopping malls, casino, auditorium-cum- theatre with a capacity of 500 where dances, music and stand-up comedy programmes takes place in two shows - pre-dinner and post dinner time. All in all, I felt from the day-1 experience that cruise vacation is, after all, not bad at all.
Our rooms were located at the far end of the gangway.

View from Deck-11 as ship has moved out of the harbour. and moving towards the sea.

Fort Lauderdale beach seen from deck-11 of the ship.

A faint view of Miami skyline at the far end of the picture from the ship.
Day-2 :  On the Ship
In the morning, my wife and our two grandchildren went for spending time in whirlpools and had our morning coffee at the pool side. After breakfast, grandchildren went for 'Fun Factory' from 9.00-11.00 am where some children's games were played. Being a pleasant sunny day, we spent most of forenoon time on the open Deck-11 on beach chairs to relax. In between, we will fetch some fruit juices to quench our thirst. We had a lunch at our usual restaurant, Oceanview Café. We returned to our room to have some afternoon siesta.
In the evening, we spend some time on the swimming pool side as grandchildren were in the swimming pool followed by whirlpools. The swimming pool rule requires that one adult from the family must be present at the swimming pool when minors are in the swimming pool. Instead of simply sitting and watching the grandchildren in the swimming pool, we used to have, at the Poolside Grill, some fast food  where in addition to non-vegetarian burgers and hot dogs, vegetarian burgers were also made available on request.
In the late evening, we all watched a dance show called 'I- Hollywood' in the auditorium which was followed by  the Captain's formal dinner at San Marco Restaurant which occupied the combined Deck-4 and 5 of the ship. It was a sit-in dinner with formal dress code and  a 5-course dinner was on the card. Unfortunately, we had to leave dinner half-way as our grandson developed  head-ache and nauseating feeling. With 500 guests, we did not want him to create a scene of motion sickness as the ship had started swaying a little - definitely less than what is generally experienced when a plane is flying through air pocket.

The minor swaying of the ship continued in the night for sometime but  did not create any further problem for my grandson. The night passed off peacefully.
Swimming pool, whirlpools on Deck-10. Most of the tourists spend time here and on open Deck-11 ).

Ship leaves  waves on the back side as it moves.

Marble staircase with lighting on Deck-3.

A sit-in restaurant on Deck-4.
Day-3 : In Cozumel (Mexico)
After nearly 40 hours of sailing from Ft. Lauderdale, our ship anchored at Cozumel pier at 8.00 am. This was our first of the two shore excursions. There were as many as 48 options available for shore excursions in Cozumel which were listed on the brochure given by the Celebrity Cruise. The tourists could choose multiple options  as per the time at their disposal (8.00 am to 5.00 pm) and the age factor as some tour options required physical fitness etc. The outside tour was at our own expenses. We found that some of the tourists, especially the senior citizens were not interested in shore excursions  as their motto for cruise vacations seem to be the relaxation.
After considering the various options, we decided to take Mayan Ruins, Island Tour and Beach which was of the duration of 4 hours and 30 minutes. The idea was to devote the rest of the available time for taking a stroll around Cozumel Pier and do some shopping.
Since our tour was to start from 11.30 am, we had enough time for bath and breakfast.
We disembarked  from ship in Cozumel at  11.00 am. After the completion of immigration and security check which got over in less than 5 minutes, a Tour Guide took us to the waiting bus via the duty-free shopping arcade.  What a change in weather! While in the US, we were just coming out of winter into spring with a pleasant weather, in Cozumel it was warm and humid like Mumbai.
GPS image shot from the  TV in our room showing the route to Cozumel. The red dot is the location of our ship on its way  to Key West.  

Cozumel (Mexico) Pier.

The gate on the right is the place for immigration and security check at Cozumel Pier. On the left is the duty free shopping arcade.

Our cruise ship 'Celebrity Constellation' anchored at Cozumel Pier.
Our first stop was Mayan Ruins at San Gervasio which was located about 10 kms from the Pier. The bus journey reminded me of similar road journey one takes in Konkan coast in India - lines of a mix of coconut and gulmohar trees on one side and sea coast on the other side. The ruins are located in Mayan rain forest inhabited by iguanas, probably belonging to lizard family.
The Guide gave the background of Mayan Civilisation which is said to have flourished since 200 BC. The ruins were once the holy site where Maya people, especially women used to visit this place at least once in their life time. Some of the ruins were once temples where the Goddess of Moon (Fertility) was worshipped by Maya people. It is said that the place was abandoned when the Maya people got infected with some incurable disease which was  brought to the island by the explorers from Europe in the 16th century.

Entrance to San Gervasio Mayan Aarchaeological ruins, Cozumel.

One of the ruins of a temple in San Gervasio Mayan complex. Almost all the structure in Mayan complex have no roof. So all have now been covered with thatched roofs.

The Arch of San Gervasio. It  was a religious pathway.

A 'L' shaped ruin. From the structure, it seems to be one of the dwelling places for Mayans.

Inside Mayan ruins.

A monitor lizard on a thatched roof of the Mayan ruins. We found hundreds of iguanas inside the Mayan ruins complex.
After spending about an hour at San Gervasio Mayan ruins, we headed for the Paradise Beach Club. In Cozumel, all beaches are public properties and public has free access to the beaches. Like most of the public beaches in India, there are no amenities like beach chairs, clean rest rooms,  showers and changing places, facilities for water sports like snorkel etc.    However, there are some beach spots which have been rented out to businessmen who provide all the facilities mentioned above, some with cost. They also provide restaurant facilities and they expect that for the facilities provided, tourists will use their restaurants. Paradise Beach Club is one of those beaches managed by a businessman. This beach club is stated to be the favourites of cruise liners.
As soon as we entered the Paradise Beach Club, we were given a coupon for a complimentary Margarita - a cocktail consisting of tequila mixed with fresh lime juice with salt spread on the rim of the glass. It made a good business sense as those who wants one more will cost US$12! And normally, in a beach mood, most of the tourists won't stop with one Margarita. We spent about one hour swimming in the sea water followed by 30 minutes of swimming in a private swimming pool. The sea was calm and the depth was low even if one ventured away from the shore - say 100m.
The bus dropped us back at the pier. Since we had about 1 hour to board the ship, we spent time in widow shopping in duty-free shopping arcade near the pier. All the prices were quoted in terms of US$ and many of the items appeared to be priced much on the higher side. However, wines and liquors of well known brands were cheaper than those in the USA.
We boarded the ship at 5.30 pm and the ship started sailing towards Key West (Florida) at around 6.15 pm.  We spent time around the swimming pools on Deck-10 relaxing on the swimming pool chairs ordering some grills followed by coffee. The day ended with a light dinner at 8.30 pm followed by watching one hour of a stand-up comedy show in the auditorium.
Paradise Beach, Cozumel.

Paradise Beach, Cozumel.

A restaurant of Paradise Beach Club, Cozumel. In a tropical weather with warm sun, the restaurant was a cool place to sit and watch the activities on the beach.
Paradise beach, Cozumel.
A road scene outside the pier.
At the pier before boarding the ship  (in the background).

Day-4 : On the Ship
After a hectic day in Cozumel, it was a day of relaxation. We got up late and had breakfast around 9.00 a.m. Since we were sailing through Caribbean Sea, we watched live in our room the World Cup T-20 semi-final between India and West Indies from 10.00 am to 1.00 pm. It was a disappointment for us as India lost to West Indies. With this background, we had buffet lunch at Oceanicview Café. After lunch, we decided to explore Decks3, 4 and 5 in details as we had no opportunity to visit these decks except in the night for watching the shows in the auditorium. After doing some photo session on these decks, we returned to our rooms for a afternoon siesta.
In the evening, we went to poolside on Deck side and had grills and coffee. Since it was a clear sky and sun was about to set, we climbed to open Deck-11 to have a sunset view the first time. The cool breeze of the evening was very soothing  - something which I felt better than the air conditioned rooms on the ship. For the dinner, we had Bengali fish curry and rice which we relished. This was followed by varieties of ice cream from the parlour. After watching the international dance shows in the auditorium for about an hour, we returned to the room to end the day.
View of Cozumel as our ship leaves the pier for Key West.
Inside the Casino on Deck-4.
One of the life boats hanging on Deck-5.
Johnny Walker Black Label at US$3800! in the shopping arcade of the ship on Deck-5.
Sun is about to set in on day-4.
Day-5 : In Key West, Florida.
Our ship docked at Key West pier at 8.00 am as scheduled. Since we were returning on the USA soil after visiting Cozumel in Mexico, we had to go through the immigration process. Celebrity Cruise had arranged for the immigration procedure on Deck-4 and we were advised to report for immigration between 8.00 am and 8.30 am.  There were two separate counters for immigration - one for US citizens other for non-US citizens. Since my wife and I were Indian citizens, we reported at the appropriate counter at 8.00 am. We were 3 and 4 in the queue  and as such it did not take more than 10 minutes to complete the immigration process.
After the completion of immigration formalities of my son-in-law, daughter and the grandchildren who were US citizens, we proceeded for the breakfast and then for disembarkment from the ship. The Celebrity Cruise had given us a brochure listing 28 tour options in Key West. But we decided to do the tour ourselves. After visiting the aquarium which was located within the walking distance from the pier, we boarded a 'hop in hop out' tram  for visiting the lighthouse. However, we found after reaching that it was closed of the tourist.
We took another tram to reach the southern-most tip of the USA. From this point, the nearest coast of Cuba is hardly 90 miles. There was nothing to see here except that geographically, it was the southern most point. However, there was a big queue outside a chorten type shape symbolising the southern most point for photo session. It took about 30 minutes for our turn to come for the photography.  From here, after a walk of about 20 minutes in warm and sunny weather, we reached Higgs Beach. We entered the first restaurant we came across as it was already 1.00 pm and we were hungry.
I do not remember the exact name of the restaurant but it seemed to be Salute Restaurant located bang on the periphery of the beach. It was more like a restaurant with thatched roof with open view. One can have a leisure lunch here in a cool shade enjoying the beach activities. We selected the Mexican food with blue Margarita. Just outside the restaurant, locals as well as some of our cruise fellows were playing beach volleyball.
Again, it looks like, Higgs Beach is popular with cruise crowds. We could not get any vacant beach chairs with umbrellas. So while grandchildren and my song-in-law went for a swim, we sat on a bench under the shade of a tree. Then we saw a wooden pier which goes quite inside the sea. That seems to be an attractive place to visit with lots of birds around the end of the pier. So I saw some photo opportunities and walked towards the pier.
Two of the islands of Key West seen from the ship while anchored at the Key West Pier.
Key West Pier seen from the ship.
The trolley bus for 'Hop-In Hop-Out  tours in Key West.
Custom House Museum building, just outside the Key West Pier.
An unusual decorated car parked on the road viewed from a tram bus.

A beautiful house by the side of the sea with coconut trees adding to  tropical nature of the region of Key West.

A yard for rental yachts in the backwater of Key West.

 The picture is self-explanatory.

After spending about 3 hours including the lunch at the restaurant, we took a tram from the nearby stop to get us dropped at the Aquarium. Before walking back to pier for boarding our ship, we had the famous Key Lime Pie with Ice Cream at one of the places opposite the Aquarium. It had an unique taste as I had tasted lime pie any where and that too with ice cream.
We boarded the ship at 4.30 p.m. There was an additional security check before we went to out rooms. Before the ship was to sail from Key West, we reached the open Deck-11 to have a bird's eye of Key West. The scene looked awesome as some of the photographs given below will show. The ship departed exactly at 5.00 pm as schedule. After the ship was in the mid-sea, we came down to Deck-10 to have coffee with some light snacks.
After sunset, we returned to out rooms to pack our baggage as our cruise would conclude the next day early morning at Ft. Lauderdale. We had a light dinner followed by a stroll on the open Deck-11. The cool sea breeze and a clear night sky with thousands of stars were the parting gift from the nature as we would be out of the ship in less than 12 hours to carry the memories of spending a leisure cruise vacation of 5-nights.
Higgs beach, Key West. Photo taken from the wooden pier.

The metal bridge over the sea at Higgs Beach, Key West.

Probably a sea-gull, Higgs Beach, Key West.
Lots of yachts seen in the sea from Deck-11 of our ship as it is about to sail from Key West pier.
One of Key West islands seen from the ship.
Our ship takes a 'U' turn from Key West Pier as the waves from the rear side of the ship would indicate.
One of the Key West beaches seen from Deck-11 of the ship.
As our ship sails on its final destination of Ft. Lauderdale, Key West Pier is distancing away from us.
Day-6 : Ft. Lauderdale and disembarkment.
In the previous night, we were advised by Celebrity Cruise staff that in case our big baggage were to be carried by them (2 baggage for each room), they be kept ready with tags given by them and kept outside our rooms by 11.30 p.m. The staff would carry these baggage in a trolley, unload them and deliver us just outside the custom check counters between 8.30-9.30 am. While this arrangement was nice especially for senior citizens, we felt that we will lose flexibility in leaving the pier for onward journey to our home. So we did not avail of this facility.
We waked up early as we had decided to leave the ship by 7.30 am though officially we were allowed to stay in the ship up to 8.30 am. After completing the breakfast early, we checked out from the ship by 7.30 am with our baggage. At the pier, there was a big queue for custom formalities. However, with many counters, we were through with the custom and by 8.00 am, we were at the parking lot outside the pier where my son-in-law had parked his car.
We left Ft. Lauderdale by 8.00 am. Due to spring holiday week-end, we faced many traffic jams on I-95 (Inter-State Highway) especially in the stretch between Georgia and South Carolina States. Despite making many detours as guided by Google maps, it took nearly 17 hours of drive with 3 breaks to reach home at around 1.00 am the next day.  With this, our first cruise vacation came to an end.
What we had learnt from cruise vacation is that one spends holidays in a leisurely fashion. While, there are lots of activities abroad the ship which can keep the tourists busy, there is flexibility  like when to wake up and take afternoon siesta, strolling on the open deck, breakfast, lunch and dinner timings etc. I observed that some tourists just came to relax on the pool side or open deck, lie down on pool chairs and read books. The day offshore excursions are supplementary to the  main theme of cruise vacations. Cruise vacations are not sight-seeing trips.


Ankush Karwa said...
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KS said...

SK, Nice write-up (as usual). Detailed blog of a Cruise experience!! Didn't know you had done this on this year US visit. Reminded me of a 7-8day cruise we had done from Seattle to Alaska. The main problem with Cruise trip for me (no, not you) is too much food availability all the time. ;)

Bariza Events And Holidays Pvt Ltd said...
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Make India Travel said...
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