Spring Break in The Bahamas… Family Style!
It was just after we had returned from our six month South American odyssey to the US, that we awaited Grandma’s arrival at Miami International Airport Terminal or MIA as it is known. We were trusting that Grandma wasn’t MIA (Missing-in-Action), as we looked desperately to catch a glimpse of her entering the arrivals hall. You see, we were over the moon at Grandma’s decision to come all the way from Australia to Miami to visit us for five whole weeks!
This was a very welcome change to her declarations that she would not come to visit us at all! While we had left Australia on good terms, the fact that we left without a return ticket, had left Grandma in a constant tizz in that first year. She kept insisting over the course of the whole year that it was great that we had our fun and vacation, but that it was now time to come home and settle back down into the usual grindstone. In the end, she gave in and her visit was an incredible present to all of us, as we hadn’t seen each other for over a year. My heart leapt into my mouth as I caught my first glimpse of her. Of course, there was Skype (and we talked almost every day), but how can that even compare to the massive hug I was giving her now!? Now, finally back in each other’s company, we were kicking off our family reunion with a 5-day Caribbean cruise! As Miami is the cruise capital of the world, we were able to secure a trip that cost less than $40 a day per person, with a room, all food, and non-alcoholic beverages included!
At first, I had been a bit skeptical about cruising. This would be my first cruise after all! I had heard numerous stories about horrible cases of sea sickness, seen countless movies portraying extreme storms (that usually ended in the ship sinking) and then there was the added fear that we would be cruising through the Bermuda Triangle! What probably didn’t help was that just one week earlier, my brother and I had watched a two hour documentary on the terrifying mysticism surrounding the triangle. What was scarier however, was the latest scientific theory that it is actually a freak monster – 11 metres high (39 Feet) rogue wave, breaking in the middle of the ocean, that was responsible for sinking all those ships the size of ours, and sending them to the bottom of the Atlantic Trench, 3 miles down, never to be seen of again!
The only real life cruising experience I could cling to was my Dad’s, and this had taken place twenty years earlier. He had regaled us with stories of getting on the boat and not seeing a speck of land for three days. Apparently, the ship was hit by some bad weather and had swayed constantly and violently from left to right to, up and down, adding that extra wow factor to the dancing in the open-decked nightclub. While this story may have excited my other family members, it left me quaking in my sandals.
Day 1. Embarkation
Our cruising experience began on a beautiful spring morning in Miami. This meant that at 10:00 am, it was already close to 32C degrees. Our taxi was late, and Grandma was stressed. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling a little of the same myself, racked with a mix of worrying about missing the ship and if we did make it, ultimately worrying about sinking. However, the taxi being late actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it gave me the chance to relax and sweat out my concerns, so when our taxi driver did arrive, cheerfully popping open the trunk, I was quivering with excitement instead of terror.
While we weaved our way down through the tumult of downtown Miami, our taxi driver, a lovely woman named Carmen, gave us a very good tip to cruise by. At the entry terminal, you have a choice of giving your luggage to the cruise staff or carrying it on yourself. While your luggage will usually be in safe hands, it can take up to five hours for it to be delivered to your rooms. Instead, carry your luggage on yourself and skip the inconvenience. Having only two medium sized suitcases between the 5 of us, this particular tip was perfect for us.
We found Check-In to be a breeze, simply showing our passports before each being presented with our very own Carnival cruising card. This would be our room key and pass onto the ship and, a charge card for any extras on the ship. This was a great experience for me, for at the time, I had never had my very own hotel room key, that also gave me access to many of the other services on the cruise, all of which Grandma told me that I could choose to exercise at my discretion. Of course, I would just use it mainly for the room entry, but it was the feeling of being trusted and independent that took my mind off any further worries and started to open my eyes to the fun that was potentially ahead. I stepped forward into a haze of exhilaration and slipped it away into my bag for safe keeping. From here we weaved our way straight through the glass tunnels to an impromptu photo shoot, before entering inside the belly of The Carnival Victory.
The lobby was a magnificent assembly of green and gold, glass and velvet. Two grand staircases led upwards to the casino, cafes and shopping strip while the glass elevators zoomed up and down to all the remaining levels. We had been told that our room might not be ready for another two hours, so it was definitely a pleasant surprise when we discovered that we had immediate access, allowing us to gush at the room and ocean-view a few hours in advance. We met with our room attendant Benny, a young man from Indonesia who always had a smile on his face. He showed us all the amenities and even reassured Grandma with her concerns. She only had compliments for his wonderful demeanour.
Next we headed up to the Lido deck where The Sail Away party had begun. We piled up food on our plates from the Mediterranean inspired buffet, while a Jamaican Reggae group performed Bob Marley covers almost in the exact order they were on the Legend Album. Then Lalika and I discovered The Grail of all ocean-going discoveries – the 24-hour ice-cream and pizza bar. I can honestly say that all my fears of cruising were vanquished in that instant.
At two o’clock, a mandatory safety briefing commenced to inform us on what to do if the ship was to sink. Here we met with two Australian women who were staying only a few doors down from us. “It would be great to see you again!” they called to us as a loud siren signalled the end of the orientation. “Yes!” we agreed. “Though hopefully not here!”
Now there was only the ship to explore, the veritable size of a small city. We rode up and down in the glass elevator, navigating the different levels and scouting out the perfect places for Grandma to tan. The realisation afterwards was mind-blowing. We had spent two hours, the time it takes to watch Star Wars 4, in a blink of an eye, just by running around discovering the nooks and crannies of this humongous cruise ship. Our last stop was returning to the Lido deck where we stood with the majority of our fellow cruisers, watching the golden sunset and cheering at the sound of the embarkation horn. It was a beautiful moment because as I was hugging my Grandma, it sunk in that she was actually, really here, with us, and the realisation (though a little late!) kept me beaming long after the sun had set.
We freshened up in our room and then made our way to the lavish dining room where we met with our table mates, another family with three children, all in our age group, Preston, Adrian and Juli. After awkwardly sitting in silence for the first few minutes, Lalika accidentally ate Juli’s baguette slice, and suddenly we all became the best of friends. Dinner was delicious, with enough vegetarian options to satisfy all of us, but it was dessert that left a lasting memory. Chocolate melting cake with vanilla ice-cream… purely divine.
Our first night ended in our room, playing a Canasta card tournament with Grandma, which we graciously let her win.
Day 2. Nassau, Bahamas
Day 2 saw us floating into Nassau’s harbour at 8:00 am in the morning. After a quick breakfast in the Lido deck buffet restaurant, we disembarked the ship with the hoards and entered into country number ten on our world tally. We had decided to take the less touristic approach and instead of hopping onto the express bus that drove straight to the elaborate gates of The Atlantis Resort and Waterpark, we opted to walk. It was only a two-kilometre stroll, and we took it slow, basking in the laid-back, Caribbean charm the city aired. The walk across the bridge that spans from Nassau to Paradise Island (Atlantis Resort) was probably my favourite part of the walk, with incredible views and exhilarating wind currents. With only a quick Grandma cappuccino break slowing us down, we entered into Atlantis.
While Lalika and I were drawn like magnets to the waterpark (especially that shark tank slide), we too acknowledged that it would be downright foolish to purchase $120 tickets per person for not even four hours. Instead, we followed the dolphin carved signs down to The Atlantis Resort Beach that was complimentary to use for cruising guests. Miles of soft, white sandy beach and crystal clear waters reflected in my sunglasses. A spectacular vista of azure, aqua waves beckoned to all of us, and I am ashamed to say that I didn’t even help with setting up camp! I just dropped my bag and ran.
The waves turned out to have a streak of wild in them, and so I harnessed my Australian Nippers Lifeguard training, diving underneath the particularly vicious shore dumpers. I managed to avoid getting dumped for three-quarters of our time on the sand until watching Lalika perform a handstand in the water. I was caught off-guard in a set of savage waves that tossed and turned me in the undercurrents, depositing me half waterlogged onto the shore. I decided to take a break from swimming for a while and instead got my hair braided by a local. Surprisingly, it was a very painful experience, but afterwards, drying the small tears that had burst over my squinting eyelids, I looked in the mirror and thought it was well worth it.
We spent the rest of the afternoon, swimming, relaxing and taking a nice, long walk down from one end of the beach to the other. It was as we were returning from our stroll, that we noticed two guys dumping all our things down onto the sand, obviously trying to reach the pool chairs underneath. We hurried over, unsure of what was happening. Apparently the chairs we had taken, cost money to rent, $7 USD each to be exact. We had no idea and apologised immediately, but were met with rude comments and mean stares. It was sad to see how much the tourist industry had affected much of the local people’s demeanour towards visitors. Though to be fair, Grandma did lose it a little bit too, and I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to be the person on that end of the spectrum.
This observation is not a judgement passed on everybody here and to prove it, as we were walking back to the cruise ship, we met with a staff member in the resort. He enquired immediately how our stay here in the resort was. When learning that we were not guests but simply cruisers, he continued to be exceptionally polite, asking how we were enjoying our holiday. He asked about our travels and enthused about Ecuador with us, (his home country), leaving a positive impact on our view of Nassau.
We returned to the cruise ship where after stuffing ourselves full with a late lunch, Lalika and I joined the other kids our age in ignoring the rule of not swimming straight after eating. Pulling on our suits, we dove headfirst down the waterslide, while Grandma sat right by the exit tunnel, snapping pictures on her phone with one hand and enjoying an ice-cream with the other.
It was formal night on the cruise, with enough cocktail dresses and tuxedos to swathe the entire exterior of the cruise ship. We, of course, decided to take the more laid back approach, or at least Dad did, wearing his running shoes (only pair of shoes he owned) to dinner. We met up with Preston, Adrian and Juli at our table, comparing sunburns while we ate. There was a delicious medley of Indian cuisine available that night on the rotating menu, and except for Grandma, who declared the spices to be too overpowering for her, the rest of us enjoyed it immensely.
Ignoring our delicate finery, the five of us kids, raced to the mini golf deck. After accidentally swinging a golf ball over the side of the ship (and shockingly getting away with it!) we opted for the safer game of ping pong.
We ended the night watching Grandma’s favourite cooking show finale, indulging in the ‘sweet dreams’ chocolates left for us by Benny!
Day 3. Half Moon Cay, Bahamas
When I looked out the window the next morning, I couldn’t believe my eyes. We were about two kilometres from the shore of a magnificent crescent shaped island, the most stunning I had ever seen to date! We learned from the speakers that we had docked at Carnival Cruise’s private island, Half Moon Cay. I was even pushier than Grandma that morning, rushing the entire family through breakfast so that we could disembark, though I did make the mistake of asking Grandma if her coffee was really that necessary. Soon we were boarding small motor boats and speeding across the aquamarine waters to the very definition of the word, Paradise.
Even with all my rushing, by the time we landed on the shores of Half Moon Cay, it was packed! We had to walk almost a whole kilometre down the squeaking, white sandy beach but when we finally found a shady spot underneath a cluster of palm trees, it was worth it. We raced into the gently lapping waves, whose peaceful rhythm were a world of difference from yesterday’s feral sets. We found out that the rubber surf mats were free to use and so grabbing two, Lalika and I alternated between using them in a game of knock-the-other-off and just plain floating, whilst Mum and Dad rented a kayak and went out paddling.
Picking up on the delicious scent of fresh french fries, Lalika and I went to investigate. We discovered, just beyond the back of the beach, Carnival had set up a humungous BBQ Buffet Lunch. Pulling Grandma along with us, we grabbed plates of black bean burgers, tomato and basil salad and, of course, french fries, eating them on the scalding hot picnic table benches. In the middle of lunch, Lalika and I found out that there was going to be an epic battle of Tug-A-War starting in just a few moments. We abandoned our food and raced to join opposing sides. After a fierce struggle, I’m pleased to say that us girls won and the whole event was even filmed to be put into the Carnival Cruising Video that is available for purchase at the end of the cruise.
Before we knew it, the horns were sounding, signalling the end of our day in Half Moon Cay. We were required to join the queue to re-board the boat and embark. Grandma took one look at the gargantuan line and declared that she simply would not wait. Then using her trademark move, she began to sneak forward in line. We watched in horror and awe at Grandma’s subtle queue sneaking techniques from afar, trying not to burst into hysterical laughter, as she cut ahead of a good six hundred people. Finally she turned around, beckoning us to follow in the crook of her elbow. We hesitated, but she gave us the look of death that if we didn’t join her right that very second there would be serious consequences. Any hesitation was quelled by that look. We have never made a habit of taking a place out of turn ever, but I have to say that in this moment, I kind of had to smile as we followed in Grandma’s footsteps, cunningly sneaking ahead.
I understood that the formative influences and experiences she had as a young girl gave her a very different perspective of what was acceptable in situations like this one. When you are faced with having to wait in line, everyday of your life, literally for hours, for basic goods like bread, and at times getting to the front of that line only to be told that the person before you got the last loaf, it can affect your perceptions of line etiquette. I am in no way condoning this type of behaviour, but I can understand where it comes from. As it turned out, with this one move, Grandma saved us an hour and half of waiting to get back on the ship. I did feel a bit bad about cutting ahead, but I let it go, as Grandma looked at me with a simple wry smile.
We didn’t attend the formal dining room dinner that evening since we were all still full from our ginormous lunch on the beach. Instead, we had a light meal at the buffet and met up with Preston, Adrian and Juli at the ‘Tweens’ club for some t-shirt decorating and board-gaming. The night ended with all of us watching West Side Story on the pool deck outdoor movie theatre, as I drifted to sleep on the comfy poolside lounges, underneath the diamond stars.
Day 4. Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos Islands
The day began a little earlier than usual when waking up at 3 am, I found Grandma alert and panicking over the fact that Lalika was nowhere to be found in our cabin. A few moments later, my parents were in on the hype, while I lay on the bed, in a dreamy haze, trying to figure out what in the world was going on. Not even ten seconds later, Lalika returned, quietly opening and closing the door in an effort not to wake us. Turns out, it had been an aspiration of my brother’s to wake up at 2 am and test out the 24-hour pizza and ice-cream amenity. Lalika had actually told me of his plan a couple of times, but I had never thought he would go through with it! All the huff ended in laughter after my parents had seen the humour in it all and we returned to bed and slept all the way until morning, waking up in Grand Turk, amidst the Turks and Caicos Islands.
We disembarked early, via the ramp, touching down into country number 11, immediately finding ourselves inside a mammoth mall complex of restaurants, swimming pools and endless, expensive boutiques. People were so packed so tightly on lounges by the pools; they looked like elephant seals hoarding together on a small set of rocks at the base of the Antarctic, only that we were now in the middle of the Caribbean. Music belted out, and people were imbibing colourful beverages of all kinds with not one spec of interest in what was really on this island. Wanting more of an authentic experience, we decided to skip this all and hailed a large white taxi. We began a drive across the island to Cockburn Town, the only town on the entire island archipelago. Our taxi driver, a local man who had never left Grand Turk gave us an impromptu history lesson on the island as we sped through its sandy green countryside, now darkened to a shade of asparagus, courtesy of the swelling clouds. It wasn’t a complete surprise when it began to rain, soaking the car completely and adding a unique kaleidoscope twist to our window views. Luckily the rain seemed to halt just as we pulled up to the town.
Cockburn Town was a delightful medley of pastel colours and beautiful, blooming flowers, riddled with long narrow streets and old street lamps. Our taxi driver dropped us off in the centre of Duke Street, promising to return in an hour or so. Cockburn Town is actually the capital city of the Turks and Caicos Islands and is home to over 3700 people. While minuscule, compared to most other capital cities of the world, Cockburn Town exuded a leisurely allure where the pressures of time seemed to be lost. We criss-crossed through the town, marvelling at the waterfront views and snapping pictures through the humid, foggy haze. We spoke with a few locals, but unfortunately, another shower of rain dampened our desire to stay longer, even though it was extremely warm. We caught another taxi and began the scenic drive back to the cruise ship docks. Of course, just as we arrived back, in typical tropical fashion, the sun decided to shine out in all its glory. So we decided to head out to the yellow sandy beach.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t such a great call because unlike Half Moon Cay, the beach at Grand Turk was very small and it was packed tighter than a tin of sardines. After about ten minutes of wandering the burning sand, we decided to call it quits and nursing our scalded feet, returned to the mother ship, which we found to be almost entirely empty! The Lido deck was toned down to a shade of relaxation, and we joined in with the tranquil vibe, eating lunch in the sun and then going for a swim in the pools.
Next we raided the arcade with Grandma, passing another half an hour amidst the neon lights and pumping music. Coming back out, we stopped at the cafe to get a coffee for Grandma and discovered that the barista was a Hungarian girl called Zsuzsanna! Grandma was overjoyed to have someone to talk to besides us in her native tongue and Lalika & I found it an amazing opportunity to learn what it’s like to work on a cruise ship!
While we learned of some cool and interesting things about their ship-bound lifestyle that usually lasts for 6-9 months at a time, we also heard of some things that shocked us. Did you know, that there was a pecking order in how workers got paid, depending on what country you come from? Apparently just a few months earlier Zsuzsa (along with all the other baristas, waiters, and waitresses) was only being paid on the tips she earned. This meant that some days she received only $50 for what added up to a 14-hour working day. However, Zsuzsa told us that the policy changed with her new manager, but that she was still heavily relying on tips to get by. She did say it was worth her while, but, it made us think deeply, as a family, about the cost we paid for the cruise. Perhaps this was one of the reasons the cruise line was able to make the cost per person so low. It made me feel more than a little uncomfortable thinking the workers were not being paid properly and wondered how this could overall effect the safety and well-being of the passengers. We saw Zsuzsa a few more times while we were cruising and she even came down to our room to say goodbye to us, the night before disembarkation!
At dinner, the nut ‘pecan’ provided us all with some very funny entertainment. While Americans pronounce pecan – pe-cuhn -, Australians pronounce it pee-can. That was why I had to ask Adrian nine times to repeat what he was having for dessert (Caramel Cake with Butter Pecan Ice-cream) before I finally caught on. But hey, Tomato, Tomata, Potato, Patata, let’s call the whole thing off. The rest of us discovered that if we asked for our chocolate melting cake dessert with chocolate ice-cream instead of vanilla, we would receive a bigger serving! So success for everyone today!
We finally decided to check out one of the live, musical style shows in the theatre. The only one playing that night was A Tribute To America, which took us from the 1910s all the way to the modern day, through an array of cabaret songs famous in each time-period. While it was a bit cheesy and kitschy in some parts, (dancers doing aerobics on stage to ‘Let’s Get Physical’) the acts were amazingly professional and the singing sublime. Even Grandma enjoyed it!
Day 5. Fun Day At Sea
Our final day on the cruise was filled with sunshine, swimming, mini-golf, and much ping pong. The breakfast and lunch buffets were kicked up a notch, serving a magnificent table of Death-by-Chocolate! Chocolate cake, chocolate croissants, chocolate strawberries, chocolate milkshakes, chocolate pastries, chocolate pie and a spectacular chocolate fountain (with churros) were just a few of the chocolate delicacies available. Lalika and I joined Preston, Adrian and Juli for a movie and pizza fun, as well as a Rummy tournament with Grandma!
We arrived in the dining room for one final dinner, concluding with our favourite dessert; yes you guessed it, chocolate melting cake with vanilla ice-cream. Nearing the end of dinner, the lights suddenly dimmed and the waiters converged at the centre of the dining room, singing their version of ‘Leaving on a Jetplane’ with the chorus adapted to “You’re leaving our fun-ship, we hope to see you back again!”. It was a funny and touching tribute to our time with Carnival Cruises and all the friends we had made while being on their ship. It was definitely upsetting when we had to say goodbye to Preston, Adrian and Juli, but we promised to keep in touch!
When we disembarked the next morning, I came to realise that I love cruising! In fact, I might even end up like this woman! Just kidding. Stay tuned for more blogs coming soon about our summer of fun with Grandma!
Have you ever cruised with Carnival? Did you enjoy your time with them? Leave your thoughts down below!