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I’ve been catching back up on my daily grind this past week after returning from a vacation. For our latest adventure, Winnie and I did something entirely new – for us. After months of planning and anticipation, Winnie and I took our first vacation cruise a couple of weeks ago.
Planning The Adventure
Back in April, we decided we really needed to both take a vacation cruise and visit some of the Caribbean islands. One thing led to another, and we booked a ten-day trip on a cruise ship that sails out of nearby Baltimore, Maryland. Our ship was the Royal Caribbean Lines “Vision of the Seas.” This is a smaller, older ship that can safely navigate in and out of Baltimore. A smaller older ship was fine with me, as it was still the largest ship I’ve sailed on. With the exception of one day I spent underway onboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz back in 1996. Which is another story and shall be told another time.
This was the first time since I retired from the Navy in 1996 that I’d been out on the open ocean. It was Winnie’s first-ever open-ocean excursion. I’m proud to say she handled shipboard life like a natural sailor.
Our original schedule had us visiting Bermuda for two days, then three days on various islands in The Bahamas. At the last minute our schedule changed, canceling Bermuda, due to weather concerns. Instead, we had a consolation prize of one day in Port Canaveral, Florida, and the same three days on various Bahamian islands. The schedule change also included an extra day underway.
I really enjoyed the time spent just cruising the Atlantic Ocean. One morning Winnie and I got up extra early and had a chance to enjoy an ocean sunrise from the promenade deck. We also experienced ocean sunrises from our cabin window. One thing I was very firm on with Winnie was paying extra for a cabin that had a window. I explained that I had spent too many years at sea without any way to look out a window. So, this cruise was my chance for a window view.
I had been hoping to have a clear nighttime view of the stars, but this was not to be. There was simply too much deck lighting on this ship to see anything star-like.
I’d been to Port Canaveral back about 1980, on my first submarine USS Scamp. Winnie wasn’t interested in any tours, she just wanted to visit beaches. So, once off the ship we found a local shuttle service and visited Coco Beach. We’d hoped to do some snorkeling, but the surf was about five feet. So, we wisely decided to just catch some sun while getting our feet wet. We did have a chance to browse in the Ron Jon Surf Shop, billed as the largest surf shop in the world. It’s a Florida thing.
The ship made the run from Port Canaveral to Grand Bahama Island (The Bahamas) in one night. After we moored, we caught a local taxi service down to Paradise Cove Beach Resort. This resort is billed as the best beach snorkeling on the island. I can’t attest to it being the absolute best, but it was excellent.
The resort owner has created an artificial reef in an otherwise sandy-bottomed cove using concrete “reef balls.” The cove is about six to nine feet deep, and there is a natural reef further out from the beach marking a drop-off into thirty feet of water. The natural reef was a little too far out for us to swim to, so we just snorkeled around the reef balls and sandy cove. It was worth snorkeling, as we saw lots of reef fish, living shells, and three sea turtles. Another person announced she had seen a mantaray along the reef balls but, regretfully, we missed that.
We also had the opportunity to sample some “cracked conch,” an island delicacy.
Our next visit was to Nassau, moored at the cruise ship terminal in Freeport. This was the busiest day of our cruise. For one, this is a seriously large cruise ship terminal. Our’s was one of six cruise ships moored that day and by far the smallest.
Swimming With The Sharks
We had booked a shore excursion for this port; a “Shark and Stingray encounter.” This excursion turned out to mostly be an over-hyped disappointment.
The excursion started about three hours after we moored, so we had about one hour to walk around Freeport. At the anointed excursion start time we were herded onto a small boat for the 20-minute cruise over to “The Blue Lagoon,” which is a privately-owned speck of Bahamian reef just outside Freeport harbor.
The island owners have set-up “marine animal encounters” playing to the cruise ship visitors. In different lagoons and pens they manage captive dolphins, sea lions, nurse sharks, and stingrays. They bring people into these lagoons and pens in small groups. They also have an open lagoon with a sand beach for people to hang out while waiting for their “encounter.” Given the crowds, we waited several hours for our group’s turn.
It seems that the “encounters” only last about twenty minutes per group. Long enough to get pictures taken, that were later offered to us at an extra charge. Our encounter was also a sharks-only event. The stingrays must have had the day off.
We spent our several hours waiting-time snorkeling in the open lagoon and generally enjoying the lovely warm waters. Finally, it was our group’s turn to swim with sharks. At the shark pen the trainers first gave us a presentation on the nurse sharks under their care. Then they allowed us to enter the water, telling us to keep our hands on our chests so the sharks wouldn’t mistake our fingers for tasty fish.
We were then allowed to touch the sharks, one at a time, with the trainer’s assistance . It was pretty cool to be able to touch a living shark, an experience I haven’t previously had. Winnie was thrilled, even though she tried to be nonchalant about it.
After our twenty minutes in the shark pen, we were herded back to the boats and taken back to Freeport Harbor. I will admit, the trip back was the best part of our excursion. Our boat was a two-deck catamaran, holding about 100 people. The Captain and crew cranked up party music and got most of us passengers dancing all the way back. I suspect that the party mood was helped by most passengers being drunk by then – The Blue Lagoon did have several well-stocked Tiki bars.
We returned to Freeport just in time to get back on our ship before departure.
The Perfect Day
Our last port call was to a Bahamian Island owned by the Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. This island is developed as a water park and included a nice buffet restaurant. As with Port Canaveral, the open beach surf was too rough for snorkeling. So, we spent the day inside the protected lagoon area splashing around and generally enjoying our final taste of Caribbean beaches. This visit was advertised by the cruise lines as “a perfect day.” I have to admit, this shore visit almost did live up to its advertising.
After our “perfect day” we spent the next two days cruising home. By this time Winnie and I were both extremely relaxed. We were also familiar enough with the ship and cruising routines to enjoy some shows. We did take advantage of the ship’s gym, which we knew was needed on account of how well we’d been eating the entire trip.
I must admit, pulling back into Baltimore in early November, after a week in the Caribbean, was a serious weather shock. But we had a great time. Winnie is already talking about our next cruise. Which means we’ll be doing more cruises in the future.