Western Caribbean Cruise (Spring 2017)

Until recently we had never taken a cruise. Over the years I encountered several people who love to take cruises. So, we figured why not try just one cruise and see what it’s like. Recently we took a Western Caribbean cruise… should I finish this sentence with the popular click bait “and here’s what happened!”?

Note: The images below are low resolution for obvious reasons.

Overall, I took over 600 fish pictures at just 2 locations. I still really like my Olympus Stylus TG-830. I bought this camera 3 1/2 years ago and it still works great.

The cruise

We took a 6-day western Caribbean cruise on Royal Caribbean Freedom of the Sea. Some stats:

  • Guest capacity: 3,634
  • Crew: 1,365 to 1,800
  • 15 decks

Locations:

  • Ft. Lauderdale (our starting point)
  • George Town, Grand Cayman
  • Cozumel, Mexico
  • Costa Maya, Mexico
  • Return to Ft. Lauderdale

Onboard the ship we went rock climbing on a good size wall, played mini-golf, watched two recent Star Wars episodes, saw an ice skating show and a magician, blew a few dollars in the arcade, used the exercise and weight room (which was very large). Also, Kung Fu Panda was available for pictures! Other activities included: basketball, riding the ‘Flow Rider’ with a boogie board or special wake board.

Overall the ship was very nice, great food, the crew was great.

However, there were 2 downsides we experienced while taking this cruise.

(a) Too many people nearly everywhere you went – people at the pool, people eating in the Jade/Windjammer restaurant, people on the decks, etc. Just too many people.

 

(b) Anything related to entertainment with music was waaaay too loud. What’s way too loud? Well, you had to yell at the person next to you if you wanted to have a conversation. Blaring music by the pools, in the movies, around the basketball court, during the magic show and ice skating show, around the FlowRider, etc.

Overall, we learned that we particularly aren’t ‘cruise people’ and won’t be taking any cruises in the future. We prefer to rent a condo, rent a car and make our own plans.

Ft. Lauderdale

We were only in Ft. Lauderdale for 1 night waiting for our ship to leave the next day.

We visited the Hollywood Beach Boardwalk. It’s a very active scene with lots of people walking around, biking and many different ‘mom and pop’ restaurants to choose from. At night the boardwalk seems to have concerts. It’s a nice place to visit and go for a walk.

We contacted Uber and had our driver drop us off at 1111 N Ocean Dr, Hollywood, FL which is one main entrances to the boardwalk.

We got up early the next day and took a shuttle to the crowded port. They happened to have 8 ships arrive with ~60,000 people going through the port that day – it was very hectic.

We spent a day at sea before reaching Grand Cayman early the next day.

George Town, Grand Cayman

The first stop on our cruise was George Town, Grand Cayman.

We previously booked a tour and headed to Stingray City. The tour started with a ~30 minute bus ride from the port to the yacht club followed by a ~35 minute boat ride to Stingray City. Unfortunately, the wind was very strong and whitecaps were present on the ride to our destination. I was a bit concerned when I saw ~8 other boats already moored in the area.

Our boat captain found a place to park. We hopped out of our boat to join the throngs anxious tourists looking to get close to a few stingrays.

 

And here is our token Stingray photo…

 

After we returned from Stingray City we took a bus to a hotel near the southern end of 7-mile beach. We walked onto the beach and found a nice, quiet spot to go snorkeling (without any other people around 🙂 )

 

Nice, huh? Aside from the snorkeling the only thing missing was a comfortable chair, a chilled Mai Tai and a good book.

Compared to snorkeling I’ve done over the years on the 4 major Hawaiian Islands the southern end of 7-mile beach was clearer. I saw many types of large fish (12” surgeonfish) and small fish (schools of tiny fish about ½ an inch long). The coral looked very healthy and the fish seemed happy! If I were  fish, I’d be happy here too…

 

Snapper and Surgeon fish above and below.

 

Below is a juvenile Beaubrummel Gregory. This was the first time I saw this fish – absolutely beautiful.

 

Later that evening we left Grand Cayman. Our ship traveled overnight to reach Cozumel in the morning.

Cozumel

 

After engourging ourselves on a typical cruise breakfast, we hopped off the ship with snorkel gear in hand and walked a long pier to the port. We quickly found a cab and asked the driver to take us to Chankanaab.

We visited Cozumel and Chankanaab beach park over 15 years ago, Chankanaab has changed a lot since then. They seem to have expanded the park by 60%. They added the Blue Lagoon restaurant, an area to swim with the dolphins, more Mayan replica statues and art work, a zip line, etc. Despite the growth the park is still a great place to visit. There were enough people to take up all of the chairs and umbrellas and yet the park didn’t seem too crowded. I always found quiet areas to snorkel.

I snorkeled along the whole length of the park, north from the first metal staircase entrance down south to the ‘underwater cave for certified divers’.

The snorkeling was great. Again, compared to Hawaii the water was clear. I saw many different types of fish I hadn’t see in Hawaii. Below are a few fish I hadn’t seen before.

Smooth Trunkfish

 

 

 

 

 

French Angelfish

Butterflyfish

 

 

 

 

 

Blue Chromis

Highfin Chub

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They intentionally sunk 3 statues to give divers/snorkelers something to look at underwater. Below are the Christ statue, Madonna statue (not the pop star) and Chacmol statue. Each statue seemed to be 20-30 feet underwater.

The Chacmol statue (or Chacmool) in the bottom right above isn’t very clear. Chacmol was “a particular form of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican sculpture depicting a reclining figure with its head facing 90 degrees from the front, supporting itself on its elbows and supporting a bowl or a disk upon its stomach.” Wikipedia.

Ooooh! Barracuda! Aaaaw yaaah!

Barracuda

This was one of several large barracuda in my vicinity. There was a school of about 10 of them just… hanging around…

The best part of snorkeling for me was seeing reef Octopus. The last time I saw these little critters was when I was snorkeling probably 8 years ago off Kamaole 1 Beach on Maui. They’re amazing creatures and very smart too.

 

If you’re curious, here’s a neat video on reef octopus.

More info on Chankanaab can be found here. Here is a map of the park.

Costa Maya

Costa Maya was once a tiny, quiet fishing village. In 1995 further development started and the port was expanded. It’s still a small, quaint place to visit that doesn’t yet have a ‘touristy’ feel about it. I didn’t notice any American fast food restaurants yet. To give you an idea of where its located, Belize is about an hour south and Cancun is about an hour north.

 

We previously booked a tour of the Chacchoben Mayan ruins. At the port we boarded a bus which took us on an hour ride west to Chacchoben.

Chacchoben was inhabited from about 200 AD to around 1200 AD when, like several other Mayan cities, it was abandoned for unknown reasons. Population explosion, lack of fresh water, lack of fertile land to grow crops, better living conditions at another Mayan city, etc. are all possibilities that our tour guide mentioned as reasons that may have caused the Mayans to leave Chacchoben. After the inhabitants left the jungle took over and buried the pyramids.

In 1972 the pyramids were rediscovered by an archeologist. In 1994 the Mexican Government began to excavate the site. It was opened to the public in 2002. Walking around this site there seems to still be several smaller overgrown mounds with buildings underneath. Perhaps, one day they will be excavated as well.

Over 15 years ago we visited Chichen Itza which is about 1-2 hours west of Cancun. By comparison Chacchoben has smaller pyramids yet they are still amazing. Also, Chacchoben overall is big enough to casually walk through in 1-2 hours or you can pretend to be Indiana Jones seeking another lost temple. Several pyramids have a gate to deter you from climbing the stairs, however there are several other pyramids where you can still climb the stairs. Chacchoben is worth the 1 hour bus ride and cost of admittance.

More info on Chacchoben can be found here and here.

More info on Costa Maya can be found here.

In closing

Overall it was a nice vacation. Each destination was great. We had great snorkeling, saw a number of beautiful fish for the first time and earned a better understanding of the ancient Mayans.

Very friendly (or hungry) Sergeant fish at Chankanaab

 

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