(warning: this post is to chronicle my memories of our trip, therefore it is very lengthy and likely a bit boring to anyone but me or those who are planning a similar vacation.)
Did I ever tell you I was planning a big March Break vacation? Probably not; I am not a big fan of letting the internet know when I will be out of town/my house is empty. Gavin DeBecker would tell you that is not the best way to honor your instincts.
We have always been the ones to sit back and listen to others' vacation memories and scroll through Facebook photos of friends and family sunning themselves by crystal-clear, blue ocean waters. Every year, Sophie would come home before March Break and tell us of the number of children heading off to vacations in the sun. Often, it was shocking how many actually were going away somewhere exciting. Seriously, we are not sure how others manage to tuck enough away to fund annual trips that extended beyond camping or the occasional night at a hotel in a nearby town.
This year, after much saving and planning, we decided we would take the plunge and go away for our first big vacation with the kids - before our eldest graduates and heads off to college next year. Because of the reality that this would probably be perhaps our only big vacation with the five of us, we decided a cruise would be the ideal way to see as many places as possible and be as stress-free as vacation planning can be. We got a great deal on a family cabin (a "Quint" cabin) aboard the Carnival Dream, and we booked our flights with the cruise line. We heard many reports that this wasn't the best route to go, but after price comparing with Travelocity and Kayak.com, we found they were giving us a better deal - one which included all transfers from the airport to the hotel (which was also included in the rate) and the ship.
I poured over online descriptions of excursions, tempted of course by dolphin encounters, an idyllic afternoon spent at The Blue Lagoon, and snorkeling excursions on glass-bottomed boats. In the end, we decided to forgo big ticket excursions and head out and explore on our own (and save money!).
We headed out on the Friday before March Break and had a brief stop-over in Toronto. As we flew into Orlando, I was a bit disappointed to see that it was dark outside (8pm). In my naivete, I thought that because it felt like summer, it would be light outside, like summer. Our shuttle took us to the Marriott Orlando Airport Hotel where we happily dropped our bags (they gave us two BIG rooms!) and ordered Chinese take-out.
After devouring the feast, we headed down to the indoor-outdoor pool, separated only by clear flaps to swim through. The water was gloriously like bath water (literally!) and after a day spent on airplanes, the warm water felt wonderful and soothing. The next morning we enjoyed a delicious, huge breakfast buffet and swam in the pool until it was time to be picked up by the Carnival shuttle.
Before we headed out though, we did manage to see a "real live" alligator along the bank of the water that bordered the hotel grounds. With signs that said Do Not Feed The Alligators, we had doubts we would be fortunate enough to see one, but we were! It was a highlight for us all.
Embarkation went quickly and smoothly and I cannot stress enough how wonderful Carnival is with regards to customer service and friendliness. We felt well-cared for at all times.
After a delicious (and fancy!) lunch, we found our room (the beds are sooo comfy!) and toured the ship. It is MASSIVE! We were exhausted from trying to find our bearings and every night we (Sophie, Paul, and I) found ourselves in bed by 9pm, sometimes even missing out on the towel animals. The boys made their way home much later, as they enjoyed the teen Club O2 (below) and the late night buffets.
Sophie was too shy to go to the activity club for her age group, so she had to hang out with her old fogie parents. Together we hit the hot tubs, comedy shows, gift shop, and played mini-golf.
We did find the motion of the boat bothersome at times. On the second night, the ship was very rocky due to high winds, and we all rushed through dinner and retreated to our beds by 7:30 pm, after I fed them all a Gravol. Things settled down the next day, thankfully, as we landed in the Bahamas for our first port of call.
Because we only had about six hours in the Bahamas, we decided not to spend any real money on an excursion. We followed the crowds along the main street and set our sights on the free beach, Junkanoo Beach.
We sipped Bahama Mamas and ate the snacks I had packed, in between swimming in the beautiful water. We felt the Caribbean vibe from the music that was playing from the concession stands (and all of the gorgeous white sand and blue water!). Of all three ports we visited, it was also the only one where we were left unsolicited by beach vendors, which made it very relaxing. We headed back to the ship for a hearty lunch and anticipated the (amazing) dance show that is the highlight of the ship's entertainment line-up.
Our next port of call was St. Thomas. We boarded a bit of a sketchy/scary ride aboard an open-air shuttle that careened around the curves of the mountains a bit too quickly, and I instructed everyone just to look straight ahead. We arrived at Sapphire Beach, ate the lunch which we had ordered via room service from the ship, and swam the afternoon away.
Sophie had her hair braided by a friendly island vendor who also sold us both a pretty sun dress.
The next day, in St. Maarten, we headed out on the one "excursion" I had planned. It was more of a tour, but to us, it was the highlight of the trip. St. Maarten was our absolute favourite place that we visited, and it would be an absolute dream come true if we could ever return there. I cannot say enough good things about our tour, via Bernard's Tours, which I had found online a few days before our trip. It was a professional, well-organized, FUN tour on an air-conditioned, clean, mid-size tour bus. Our tour guide/driver went by the name "Sexy," and he passed out unlimited cold canned pop, beer, and the most potent rum punch I have ever tasted. He was funny, friendly, and knowledgeable and we discovered a lot about his beautiful island during our chats.
Our many destinations included a stop at a property that hosted lots of iguanas, a small beach where we were able to see sea urchins, star fish, etc., an approx. two hour stay at Orient Beach (which on one side is nudist...old, wrinkly saggy nudists...ugh!) where we ate lunch and jumped the most amazing waves. The water was sooo warm!!
Later, we stopped in Marigot, the French capital of St. Martin, where we ate delicious French pastries from a popular patisserie, Sarafina's. This was our view as we ate at a bench near the open air market:
We then headed off to Maho Beach, the small but beautiful beach that is best known for the jumbo airplanes that fly in just 20-30 feet overhead beach-goers heads (as they descend upon the runway of the Princess Julianna airport). That was definitely the most exciting part of our trip!
As you can imagine, the waves are incredible, and once I figured out to go far enough out so that I could ride the wave without being slammed into the sand and dragged back out (I may or may not have been tossed around like a crab while frantically tugging at my bathing suit top and bottoms to protect my modesty), I had a blast.
Maho Beach is a must-do if you visit St. Maarten. You will never forget it!
To see what I mean about this popular destination, check out this jumbo plane (Air France) landing:
We took the scenic route back to the ship and marvelled at how gorgeous the island is. Seriously, can you beat this?
Our ship, in front:
Back on The Dream, we spent the last two days swimming, having fun on the gigantic water slide, and basically eating like gluttons.
The food was wonderful, the decor a bit garish and over-the-top glitz, the entertainment a bit cheeseball, and the service excellent. On our last night, we dressed up a bit for dinner and snapped some photos.
Verdict: We had an amazing time, and we totally get how people become hooked on vacationing. If we are ever fortunate to take another trip, it won't be on a cruise ship, but it will be somewhere hot and beautiful!