Tuesday 22 October 2013

Freedom of the Seas: A Mom/Daughter Cruise

Way back in 2008 I graduated from University Toronto with a specialist in English. To celebrate this accomplishment Mom decided we would take a special mother/daughter cruise. However I was heading to Niagara College in the fall so we decided to post-pone. Once I finished up my Event Management program in 2009, we talked again about the cruise now having two things to celebrate. But once again, I was heading off to a different school this time for Teachers College at York. The initial plan was to finally take this trip once that was finished around May but by that time Brian and I were engaged and planning a wedding. Most of 2010 was dominated by wedding plans and in 2011 mom and I both had new jobs. We talked - actually more-so joked - fleetingly about this trip throughout 2012 but nothing came of it. I had a different job towards the end of 2012 into early 2013 and was still taking courses and volunteering in the hopes of being hired by a school board. Dad and I went on a last minute Ireland trip in Spring, and then I was off on a trip to Greece with Brian's family. Despite my disappointment over not finding a teaching job, I was very fortunate in 2013 in terms of travel. 

Dad and Adam booked a 3 week China trip for most October, and the mother/daughter cruise came up once again. We started looking into things and found some around Canadian Thanksgiving - this worked well as it meant not having to miss a full week of work. It was also good timing because it would be just after Brian's birthday on the 11th but before our anniversary on the 24th. I wasn't expecting things to actually pan out - I had traveled a lot and was again trying to get on a supply list - but mom went ahead and booked it as a surprise. 

So a day after Brian's birthday mom and I boarded a plane to Orlando. The cruise was leaving from Cape Canaveral but we went in a day before and stayed a nearby Hilton. It was funny pulling up to the hotel because it was directly beside the timeshare we had stayed at a few years back when we took a family trip to Florida with Beau, Honey and the kids. That was the trip where Brian and I had driven down stopping to stay with his dad and stepmom in Maryland and his aunt in Atlanta. It was also the trip where I - at a stop at a parade float museum in the middle of Virginia - managed to badly sprain my ankle and spend the rest of the trip (including Disney) on crutches. I am pretty convinced that after Brian and I left the parade float museum that day for the local hospital, the museum must have changed their policies and stopped allowing guests to climb up and sit on the floats. The way in which the staff were freaking out over the potential of a lawsuit would have been funny if I wasn't in agony. But seriously? I am the one who tripped on my flip flop coming down the stairs - how is that anyone's fault but my own? Well, maybe also Brian's since he suggested such a place for his accident-prone girlfriend!  Anyway, our Hilton was directly beside the resort we stayed at which made us smile remembering the fun times we had there. 

(Welcome to Cape Canaveral) 

We stayed at the hotel for the day relaxing, having a quick dinner and then going to bed early. We got up in the morning and took a walk along the beach during sunrise. I wasn't really on board for this and protested a few times, but my mom won me over and I begrudgingly went along. I'm glad I did as it was gorgeous! Some of the best photos I have ever taken occurred that morning. 

We grabbed the first shuttle to the port and were through the cruise check in and registration quickly. I believe we got on board the actual ship at about 12:30 which was great. The ship was Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas and we were porting at: Labadee, Haiti (their island), Falmouth, Jamaica, Cozumel, Mexico and Georgetown, Grand Cayman.

The ship was great! It was a newer one and had a lot of different features then the last RC ship had - such as more pools, a Ben and Jerry's, Speciality Restaurants and a cupcake store. Our room was the typical stateroom we usually get - two beds, a balcony, a couch and a super small bathroom. The one disappointment we encountered was not getting the private table we had requested for dinner. I know some people enjoy the opportunity to get to know new people and love sitting with others at the dining room, but mom and I were looking forward to it just being us. You meet enough people throughout the day at the pool, breakfast, shows etc so the idea of long meals making small talk wasn't appealing. When we went to talk to the dining room supervisor she said it was unlikely things could be changed, but somehow she managed to come through for us and by the second night we had our own table. 

Mom and I have always tended to have a certain routine on cruises - and this one was no different. We would get up early and I would grab chairs at the pool. Mom would use the treadmill and have breakfast while I read poolside. She would come back and we would lay outside/use the pool all morning and into the afternoon. Our time at the pool was spent reading, listening to our iPods and jut relaxing. The pool we choose every day was the adult pool which was just a few floors up from our stateroom. There was one unique aspect to this pool, a woman that mom and I nicknamed "the mermaid". Every morning this woman would show up to the pool dressed in a full body wetsuit. She had a large hat on, scuba diving flippers on her feet, an aquatic belt and gloves. She would spend 4-5 hours every day on one side of the pool, and talk to anyone she encountered. I am all for being friendly and making conversation but this woman was always over sharing to the point it seemed to make people uncomfortable. She would ask personal questions and insert her opinions on matters like health, politics etc. By about day three people began avoiding the section of water she occupied. 

After being at the pool for most of the day mom and I would leave around 1:00 as the sun was getting the strongest. We would grab something small for lunch and head back to the stateroom for showers. We would then relax in the room/on the balcony or head to some ship activity. Then we would have dinner, participate in the bar area trivia games and possibility see a show. Our routine ensures we get to relax, rest and still enjoy the ships features. 

In the past mom has always sought out ships with a high number of sea days. She has cruised a lot so she generally has no interest in the ports. Plus years ago when she started cruising almost all the ship - pool included - would shut down while in port. However on this cruise she changed her mind as she realized that most people get off during the port days leaving the pool area pretty empty. Within the last few years things have changed so that while the casino and shops shut down when in port, the pool and other areas remain open and quiet. During the two port days that we stayed on board (Labadee and Cozumel) the pool area, gym and restaurant were almost empty. 

(Labadee - taken from the ship since we didn't get off!) 

The food on this ship was good - not anywhere near as amazing as Celebrity or Princess - but still good. RC is more a family line - they have the Dreamworks characters on board, a huge children/teen program and a lot of family friendly activities. So that's likely one of the reasons the food is a bit simpler. Cutbacks are another. Out waiter was quite open with us about the changes since we last cruised with them. Certain dishes cruises were known for have been scrapped, along with the the late night buffets and other aspects. It's not just in the food we noticed these changes - our stateroom just had a steward, no assistant to help him. They didn't do the towel animals (which to be honest is one of my favourite aspects) and there are a lot more areas/features that have a fee attached. We still enjoyed everything, but it's definitely different then the last time we cruised with them; and different from our cruise 10 months prior which was through a different line owned by the same parent company. 

We ate at a speciality restaurant twice. We only planned to once; but everything was delicious and the cost was really reasonable so we went back. The seafood and risotto at this place was fantastic. As was the waitress we had who went above and beyond to accommodate us. Plus this restaurant had my absolute favourite wine which I could only get there so I was happy! (Rose Regale needs to be available in Canada! I know of one LCBO downtown that sells it but rarely and only by the small individual bottles). 

(Butter carving) 

(Dreamworks Characters - me and Princess Fiona from Shrek!) 

We really loved the music trivia and attended it almost every night. There was on on songs from movies, love songs, 70's and something else. We never won but had fun trying. One night we partnered up with a young Dutch couple on their Honeymoon which was amusing. They were really sweet but didn't know much in the way of North American music. We didn't go to Bingo which was surprising for us since we normally do. I think the last cruise that changed like 40.00 for a single Bingo game turned us off playing it. 

We did get off in two ports - Grand Cayman and Falmouth. Years ago while on a cruise with the family and Uncle Beau and Aunt Honey, we ported in Grand Cayman and Honey and I had an amazing Aunt/Niece day shopping. Of course neither of us could afford anything since its a town of mostly gorgeous and expensive jewellery but it was fun wandering into the shops to look. We love shopping (something my mom doesn't) so even if we weren't buying we loved looking. I did buy a pretty Guess watch that day so I at least had something from the fancy island. Sadly the watch got washed a few years ago and wasn't repairable. 

Remembering how it was my favourite port, I wanted to go back for a few hours and mom agreed. Sadly, a hurricane had done some damage to the old cruise area so we were at a different one. It wasn't as nice, and involved waking though a bunch of construction to get to the shops. So we just stayed in the immediate port area visiting more of the souvenir shops. We found some gifts for family along with some inexpensive jewellery. We didn't stay long and were back at the pool within the hour. 

(Christmas store with an awesome name!)

For Falmouth it was a port neither mom or I had been to. Cruises used to port in Ocho Rios, Jamaica and that area was awful. If you wanted to go to the shop area it was about a 10 minute walk. I did that walk twice and both times felt unsafe. Locals are trying to get money off you, or sell you drugs and its easy to take a wrong turn. Mom and Adam did make a wrong tuen once on the way to meet us and mom is just thankful Adam was with her. He was about twenty at the time and was able to handle the situation. There was one aggressive guy following them trying to get Adam to buy drugs, and Adam remained calm and laughed pointing out he couldn't do that with his mom. The guy left them alone and moved on to someone else. It seems as if hardly any cruises port in Ocho Rios now which makes sense. Falmouth has a newer cruise area built right at the port and includes some shops, American restaurants like Dairy Queen and Subway, some bars and a craft market. We wandered around here for a bit and then we joined a tour. 

The tour I picked was to Good Hope Plantation a plantation that has been around for hundreds of years. We boarded a bus and the guide gave us a history of the area. Once you are out of the cruise area there is a huge difference in the area. Streets were full of garbage and debris, and seemed very impoverished. It also didn't seem at all safe. We had breakfast with a man the next morning who had opted to wander into this area and he said it was a horrible decision.  He had people following him, and calling out to him so within minutes he was high tailing it back to the port. 

The bus ride was short and soon we were at the plantation. When we first got there, we were taken to this grassy area where a woman was dressed in older-style clothing. She explained how the culture would sing folk songs and had us join in. At this point I was sure that I had made a mistake in picking this tour. It was all a little hokey. 

But afterwards we were taken up (by a another bus) to the top of a hill were the plantation house was located. It was a beautiful building. Not anywhere as big as the ones you see in Gone with the Wind or in the Southern US but for the area it was quite large. We were taken through the house and shown all the rooms, and explained the history of it. The building is has been preserved incredibly well and has a fascinating history. 

It was built in 1755 by Col. Thomas Williams for his wife who died a few years after moving in. In 1767 it was sold to John Tharp who expanded the property and helped the area prosper. For more information this website has a more detailed history of the plantation: http://insidejourneys.com/good-hope-great-house-plantation/

A few years ago during the Golden Jubilee Prince Harry was a visitor here so there were photos of his visit scattered around. One thing I loved about the tour was that nothing was roped off. While I get the reasons why most historic attractions rope off areas it was a nice change to be able to touch the furniture and linen, as well as sit on it. The view from the plantation was beautiful - lush greenery all over the rolling hills. 

After the tour we were seated in the gardens and served a traditional high tea. It was quite good and for the first time I tried jerk chicken. I don't usually enjoy Caribbean cuisine but this was delicious. When we went back down to the bottom of the hill we had some time to wander around their shops. We bought my brother and grandfather some Appleton Rum and Brian some strong Jamaican coffee beans along with a handmade coffee mug. I am glad that we did this excursion and found it really enjoyable and worth it. 

We had great weather for the duration of our cruise, and it was smooth sailing. I tend to get a bit sea sick so when on boats I wear a patch behind my ear. Usually I need one for the entire time, but the sailing was calm enough I was able to take if off after day three. All of the staff were wonderful, helpful and friendly. I splurged and treated myself to a facial and massage. Both were wonderful, but the massage was a really cool experience. I chose to try a Thai Poultice Massage which was something I had never heard of. Basically it uses Swedish and Deep Tissue aspects, but involves a large bag-like object made out of plant material that is filled with various herbs. It's applied to you as part of the massage and releases these herbs into your body. It was very relaxing and a style I would do again. During these treatments I got to have some interesting conversations with the therapists about what it was like to live and work on a cruise ship. Most operate on a 9 months on/3 months off schedule with limited time off during the week. They have a staff area which has kitchens, computers, games, fitness equipment and a TV/common area. Both women seemed to enjoy the experience but made it clear they hoped to be done within a few years. 

The shows on the cruise were great - especially the illusionist they had in (he was on Americas Got Talent) and a musical show they did mixing modern music with classic fairy tales. Royal Caribbean probably has the best onboard entertainment. We went to the casino twice and both times drew a crowd playing one of those silly coin-push machines everyone says is pointless. But this one had cash I inside and we won about 40.00 which was fun. 

Overall it was a really wonderful cruise with my mom. We got to spend the whole week together just relaxing and talking which was fantastic. Mom and I have always been close, so I loved the opportunity to spend so much time with her. We plan to do more of these in the future - but further down the road like in 5 years. I personally can't wait! :) 

(Though they weren't doing towel animals they did give us a book showing us how to do it - above was my attempt at a Koala Bear) 

(Our Steward secretly made me a towel animal!)