December, 2016 - Liberty of the Seas
We needed a getaway from the onset of cabin fever. Winter was rapidly approaching. Officially, it was still late fall, but the world was closing in.
We could just drive to somewhere in the Colorado Mountains. No, we wanted somewhere warm. We could go to Arizona or New Mexico but nothing sounded appealing. We both knew what we needed and wanted, our first love of travel… we needed a cruise!
It had to be in the next 3 or 4 weeks and economical. Within driving distance would also be a plus. The number one requirement? Grand Cayman had to be on the itinerary. It has long been one of our favorite ports and we could stock up on our favorite Tortuga rum.
So, we began comparing our options. We could leave out of Florida but the flights would be nearly as much as the cruise and it would be a bit far to drive. That left something out of either New Orleans or Galveston. We could drive to either in one very long day or break it into a day and half.
The next decision was to try a different cruise line. Having cruised with Carnival several times, we wanted to see what another line had to offer. It seemed we were limiting our options but found there were still plenty of good choices. Saving some money by forgoing our standard balcony cabin and booking an inside cabin was also a good option.
We nabbed an outstanding deal on Royal Caribbean; 7 days out of Galveston aboard the Liberty of the Seas. Ports of call were Cozumel, Grand Cayman, and Jamaica, with three relaxing days just cruising. We even got a free upgrade to an ocean view cabin and a little on-board credit to use. We added the Ultimate Drink Package at a 25% discount which gave us unlimited drinks like specialty coffees, soft drinks, beer, wine, and cocktails.
On the drive we spent the night with family in the Dallas area before continuing on the next morning, arriving in Galveston with plenty of time to spare before boarding. I dropped Debbie and the luggage at passenger check in and went to park the car. We had arranged parking in advance at a small lot across the street from the port; less than half the price of port parking. Well worth the short walk and, much to my surprise, even included a golf cart ride to just across from the port entrance.
After getting checked in, we board the ship and promptly begin enjoying our Unlimited Drinks. Note that due to Texas liquor laws, there are some limitations to what they can serve on board until the ship is in international waters. After that, the liquor cabinet is wide open. The blenders are, of course, churning out an enticing variety of frozen “Boat Drinks” We are happy to report, “The mixologists are not stingy with the important ingredients.”
Following the always enjoyable but necessary Lifeboat Drill, we set out to explore the ship and get our bearings. We are well accustomed to how a Carnival ship is laid out. We have found no matter the size, they all have the same basic layout. Royal Caribbean is definitely different and we found we like it.
Usually we are running around with a map in our back pocket to find the different venues, bars, restaurants, etc. A great feature on board here was the Deck Finder/Interactive Map. Just click on what you want to find, where you want to go and the map shows you what’s happening, when, and how to get there. These are located near the elevators on each deck.
On Deck 5 there is a central Royal Promenade which feels like a city pedestrian mall, rising for several decks above the street level. It is lined with shopping for souvenirs, perfumes and lotions, watches and jewelry, a liquor store and lounges. Here can also be found a coffee bar, Sorrento’s Pizza, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, and the Cupcake Cupboard. My favorite stop is the Hoof & Claw, an old English style pub serving specialty cocktails and the best beer selection I have ever seen at sea. Rising above like a hotel is a unique feature of Royal Caribbean; inside view cabins overlooking the promenade, adding to the feel of a city street.
On the next level below the Promenade there are more lounges, Focus Photo Gallery and Shop, and the Casino Royale for gambling away what is left of your kid’s inheritance.
One more level down to Deck 3 is the On-Air Club, the Art Gallery, and entrance to Studio B, an event center featuring an ice-skating rink.
Ice-skating shows are presented four times each week. These performances are elegant, fast-paced, and funny. They feature an international cast and guest stars from the world of skating. When not being used for skating, the ice is covered for a variety of hilarious audience participation games. There are also open skate times for guests.
Our hosts on-board are Cruise Director John Blair and his wife, Katrina, who also serves as the Activities Director and, by the way, looks like a young Bette Midler. They could be found each evening somewhere on the Promenade taping The Morning Show. The show can be seen each day on our cabin TV with highlights of the day to come. Interviews with the performers and other crew members showcase a different on-board venue each day.
The crew was the friendliest group we had ever encountered and the service was excellent. We never met an attendant, server, bartender, waiter or busser who wasn’t smiling and eager to help. And, this is a first, for us anyway, even the Maître d’ in the buffet area was helping serve drinks and bus tables instead of just standing around looking important. We overheard him talking to guests at the adjacent table, “I have a fantastic crew, everyone is focused on our guests. They are smiling because they enjoy what they do. Happy crew equals happy guests.”
We were pleased that, unlike past cruises, the ship’s photographers are not constantly pushing to take our pictures, hoping to get that one shot we could not resist buying in the Photo Gallery. The photos in the gallery are privately displayed on computer terminals, not openly displayed for all guests to look through. Not everybody gets to see that one embarrassingly bad shot.
We were signed up for the My Time dining option which allowed us to go to our assigned dining room at any time during the dinner hours which are 5:15 pm to 9 pm. We did go to the dining room the first evening. After checking the menu each day we found the selections on the buffet to be more interesting and better than the dining room. The range of cuisine offered was excellent with choices from American, Mexican, Oriental, Caribbean and Jamaican as well as Vegan options. What we found unusual was the spiciness of many of the selections, which I thoroughly enjoyed; Debbie, not so much.
There are also several specialty restaurants offering gourmet meals at an additional cost. These are constantly being pushed just outside the dining rooms and buffet areas. The venues serve Mexican, Italian, Steaks and Seafood, and special wine pairing dinners are available at Vintages, the wine bar. A Johnny Rockets 50’s style burger joint is also available for a moderate additional cost. We chose not to invest in any of these options.
As on most cruise ships there are multiple pools, hot tubs (some hanging out over the side of the deck) and, of course, a water slide and kid’s adventure play pool. Royal Caribbean also offers The FlowRider® on which participants can surf on a high speed stream of water. The crew attending to the FlowRider® take the time to teach riders how to balance and stay on the board as long as possible. There is also a rock climbing wall, and a basketball/soccer court.
In the Platinum Theatre there is a different show each night featuring comedians, singers, dancers, and performers of Las Vegas show quality, very entertaining. A negative to the Platinum Theatre was lack of legroom and no tables for our drinks. There are only cup-holders which did not fit most of the glassware. Also, the waiters could not get through the rows of seats.
We encountered two of the comedians mingling with the guests on deck. James Stephens III boarded an elevator with us and continued to entertain and do impressions.
A special treat we encountered in both Boleros and the Schooner Bar was the amazing classical guitarist, Voytek, who hails from Poland. His playing is beautifully mesmerizing. But what really impressed me are his classical guitar adaptations of classic rock hits like Stairway to Heaven and Bohemian Rhapsody. He appears in one of the stage shows in the Platinum Theatre playing the Gary Moore classic “Still Got the Blues” on electric guitar.
Our favorite hangout while cruising is typically the Piano Bar. On the Liberty of the Seas this is the Schooner Bar. While not quite the raucous singalong party we had experienced on previous cruises, it is still enjoyable. The Schooner Bar is also home to trivia games with themes like music, movies, history, geography, and Truth or Trash. One night is a singalong with the entertainers. We found although they are professionals, some don’t always know the songs as well as the guests, even with the lyrics printed out for them.
Our first port of call is Cozumel, Mexico. While there were over 70 different shore excursions available, we chose to explore the shops and streets near the dock on our own. After sampling some tequila and liqueurs, I purchased a bottle of Xtabentum Licor Maya, a tasty liqueur claiming to have “stimulating” properties for men. We also picked up some Mexican vanilla, some of the purest in the world.
We had a funny experience at the shopping preview on board regarding the Licor. Adam, the port shopping guide joked about it and set a bottle of it on the stage right in front of me saying it was “Up for grabs.” Of course I grabbed it and immediately found myself wrestling for it with a much younger guest. He won. I guess he needed it more than I did!
The number one item travelers shop for in the Caribbean is jewelry and every port has no shortage of vendors and direct importers. The most ubiquitous being Diamonds International and Tanzanite International. They are in every port we have ever visited. The draw is the low prices, tax and duty free, and buying directly from the source eliminates all supply chain markups. Pretty to look at but still seems over-priced to us. We prefer shopping for the local arts & crafts.
As the port in George Town, Grand Cayman is too shallow to accommodate cruise ships, we must take a tender into the pier. This is where we wanted to be! Home to Tortuga Cayman Island Rum! This smooth, easy drinking rum has become our favorite. It is available in Silver, Gold, Dark, Spiced and a variety of flavors. We recommend the Vanilla and the Coconut. It is very reasonably priced at $15/liter and they will deliver your purchase to the ship for you for free. Also try the Tortuga Rum Cakes available in several different flavors.
Another vendor featured in every port is Del Sol, purveyor of color changing products such as t-shirts, shorts, hats, fingernail polish, trinkets, and sunglasses. The sunglasses are unique in that they carry a lifetime warranty. Even if you sit on them or just lose them they will be replaced! These items all change color in the sun. The designs on the shirts change from black & white to multiple vibrant colors. Debbie always buys polish for herself, friends, and family.
There are over two dozen shore excursions available on Grand Cayman. On past visits we have gone to the turtle farm were they hatch and nurture many species of sea turtles for release back to the ocean. It is a fascinating conservation effort to protect these endangered animals.
I think the excursion not to be missed is Stingray City. This is a catamaran ride out to a sand bar teaming with stingrays. Get out and swim with and hand feed these gentle creatures with the unfortunately scary sounding name. I consider this to be one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
Being a true “Parrot-Head” I have to stop into Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville wherever we travel and Grand Cayman is no exception. Have a couple drinks and pick out a couple new t-shirts before taking the tender back to the ship.
Our last port is Falmouth, Jamaica. This is the only port on this cruise we had not previously visited. The port consists of a 32 acre shopping complex built by the cruise lines. Of course it includes all the usual suspects for jewelry, souvenirs, etc. It also has a large area of local craftsmen carving fabulous
items out of mahogany, teak, ironwood, and mango. Choose your favorite and have the artisan polish it up for you.
And, don’t forget to stop in at Margaritaville!
Most of the 50 some available shore excursions include a visit to Dunn’s River Falls. A cascading series of terraced waterfalls on which visitors can easily climb and play in the shallow rushing water which spills out onto the beach below. I had climbed the falls on a previous cruise stop in Montego Bay. It can be crowded but still a great experience.
The final two days of our cruise we are at sea on our way back to Galveston. We continued enjoying the food, the drink, and the entertainment. Especially the wild and crazy street party on the Royal Promenade with the ship’s singers, dancers, and crew. Dancers in crazy costumes of characters from the movies “Madagascar”
“Shrek” “Kung Fu Panda” etc parading the length of the Promenade. “Move it! Move it! You got to move it, move it!”
As this cruise was in December, on the final night there was a holiday themed street party on the Promenade. Dancing elves, dancing reindeer, and a dancing Santa! Performances by the ships crew, singers, dancers, and even our hosts, John and Katrina singing and dancing! While Katrina may not sing as well as Bette, she was still pretty good! The party ended with a massive balloon drop.
On past cruises I had won a couple prints at the art auctions. One is still rolled up in the tube at home. The other is proudly displayed on a wall of my “man cave”. This time we did one better by winning a nice chunk of change playing bingo. “WooHoo! Bingo!” We missed out on winning a free cruise.
After disembarking Liberty of the Seas we picked up the car and spent some time driving around Galveston. Then did some shopping on The Strand, a street in old downtown lined with many shops, bars and restaurants, and historical buildings. Beginning our drive back home, we felt recharged and ready to tackle the Colorado winter.