Category Archives: what makes me me

Travel Agent Trial by Fire

DSCN0668I have always loved traveling and putting together trips. Disney is my happy place. I grew up near Disneyland and as a teen moved to Indiana, where Disney World became our go to theme park. It doesn’t matter the size of the crowd or the heat of the day, I LOVE being at Disney. I also adore Universal Studios (on both coasts), and cruising. I’ve also led about a dozen student trips both in the U.S. and in Europe, in hopes of one day seeing most of the world.

So when I saw an opportunity to become a Magical Vacation Planner back in August of 2019, I applied. I was thrilled when I was chosen and excited to start training. And boy was there a lot of training! Not that I minded as it was fascinating learning the ins and outs of vacation planning for some of my favorite destinations. I truly feel the knowledge I’ve acquired, my love of travel, and my attention to detail make me pretty good at this job.

After only a few months of getting the word out about my new business, I was even one of the top 10 agents on my team in January. It was so amazingly exciting!

And then the coronavirus hit. Talk about a trial by fire.

On the plus side, most of my trips are scheduled for later this year, but I had two clients scheduled for trips in March, and I was supposed to be leaving with my family on a Disney vacation for the first week of our spring break. In fact, I was scheduled to leave for Disney World the day after Disney announced they’d be closing Disney World. The park actually shut down on what would have been the third day of my trip.

20191230_110814It was a mad scramble to get trips canceled and rebooked. I spent several hours on the phone with Carnival Cruise Line and Disney World trying to get everything sorted out. I definitely had my share of frustration over some dropped calls. I’d been on hold with Disney for an hour when it seemed like someone picked up, but no voice could be heard, and I was transferred to the end of call agent customer service survey. There may have been tears. But I persevered, dialed again, and waited one more time until I got through.

At one point I was actually chatting with my client on Facebook Messenger while talking to a Disney agent in order to replan her trip. Although it started out stressful, the agent I talked to was simply amazing and I ended up getting my client an even better deal which included a small refund and an upgrade to her dining plan, which will end up saving her even more money once she’s at Disney.

It’s been a crazy few weeks, but I’ve been very impressed with how Disney, Universal, and the cruise lines have handled everything. I’m also so thankful I’ve been able to get things worked out for my clients and that I still have people talking to me about wanting to travel later on in the year.

Considering how easy it can be to book your own vacations online, I’ve had several people ask why bother using a travel agent. The last few weeks have been a clear testament to why travel agents matter. My clients didn’t have to do anything to get their trips canceled and rescheduled. They didn’t wait on the phone for hours, I did. They didn’t have to sort through all the emails and online information about the latest cancelation/rebooking policies, I did. They didn’t have to try to negotiate the best refunds/deals for rebooking, I did. All they had to do was tell me what they wanted done, and I got it done for them.

One of my funniest moments was actually when my cruise client emailed me about an email she’d gotten from Carnival with an updated cancelation policy the day after we’d canceled her trip. I’d already been on hold with Carnival for 45 minutes trying to make sure she got the better deal when her email came through. I gave her an immediate update via email, and when I got her a full refund, I called her to let her know.

It’s been a crazy few weeks and since I have another client scheduled to travel in mid-April, I expect I’ll have a few more crazy weeks, but I love helping people plan the best vacations I can, so I’m happy to do it. The world may be a bit up in the air right now, but remember that once things settle, I’ll be here to help you plan the perfect Disney, Universal, or cruise vacation. And you’ll get the same dedication, organization, and communication as all of my clients. I want to help people make amazing memories and see the world.

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Spring Break Quarantine: Week 1

20200318_171023Although I have not traveled outside of the country, my famiy’s spring break trips have been canceled due to threat of the coronavirus. Since we’ve been stuck inside, I took to Facebook and started posted daily quarantine updates in a style I like to think mirrors a Jane Austen heroine.

What follows below are my famiy’s exploits from our first week in quarantine.

Day 1 of Spring Break under quarantine: The day dawned as usual, although it was with a heavy sigh that I lifted myself out of bed. Today I was supposed to embark on an adventure to a Magical Kingdom, but alas, I am relegated to spend the next month at home.

After a morning and afternoon spent trying to sort out various travel issues for my clientele, I was finally able to take a short repose in my favorite chair. I sent the children outdoors for a constitutional, hoping they would stave off cabin fever with a frolic in the snow. My youngest was delighted. My eldest is displaying his dissatisfaction by tossing snowballs at my window and glowering at me. I fear this will be the first of many withering looks in the weeks to come.

As food shortages have already begun at the local markets, I am baking bread.

I have finished reading the first of the novels I plan to read during this long spring. I have high hopes that all will be well.

 

20200315_144241Day 2 of Spring Break Quarantine: Everyone was beyond thrilled when I served bacon for breakfast, since breakfast is usually a rushed affair so that we can be on our way to school and to work.

As a family we took our first daily constitutional around the neighborhood. The wind was bracing and made me long for the tropical climate we were supposed to be experiencing as we toured the world in only a few hours thanks to the magic of Florida. But there is no use bemoaning what should have been. Jumping over mud puddles on our walks will have to suffice as our daily thrill rides.

Later I finished the second of the novels I brought home to read. I also made progress on two other heavier works of non-fiction.

In addition to our twice daily walks, I am also instituting a family game hour. My daughter chose Munchkin Shakespeare and although I should not take quite as much pleasure in this as I do, I trounced both of my children and more than my fair share of Elizabethean monsters.

Dinner was a hearty soup with some of the homemade bread from day before.

The children were enconsed in their beds with little fuss and I settled in to my favorite chair, blanket on my lap to play some virtual cards with dear friends.

 

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Day 3 of Spring Break Quarantine: Books are sustaining us through this long, cold, distance with others. I have finished the three of the books I brought home with me. My son has read twice that number. I fear he will soon run out. And with no libraries to sustain him, madness may set in soon….

I began cleaning our homestead. Although much was accomplished, my work was brought to an abrupt end when I found some mementos of my dear departed father and decided to seek solace under a warm blanket and Netflix.

Our morning constitutional was a success, but sadly as we headed out for our evening waltz around the neighborhood, a light drizzle began to fall and my children stubbornly refused to remain out of doors.

Despite the slight rain, spirits did improve with a delivery from Amazon which brought Nerf guns for my son. He is planning a full scale attack on his friends once this quarantine has been lifted. For now, he seems to be plotting against his sister. At the moment a peace holds, but I can’t help but wonder how long it will last.

 

20200318_103523Day 4 of Spring Break Quarantine: Cabin fever has suddenly set in. The day began with sibling squabbles which culminated in sibling shouting. It was truly much ado about nothing, but it is hard to reason with children in the throws of unreasonable anger.

Tempers cooled and clearer heads prevailed when a Lego challenge was issued. My son took up the gauntlet and created a new roller coaster for a theme park. My daughter created passengers for his ride. A small dose of teamwork brought them together.

Thankfully we were able to take more than just a turn around the room and actually escaped outside for our daily constitutionals. We desperately needed the fresh air and escape from the confines of our humble abode.

I was also able to finish my fourth novel of this quarantine and make impressive progress on The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. Sadly, I did not make as much progress on my Fast and Furious quest. This was due in part to the hour I spent in a Zoom meeting with the dearest companions of my heart. They lifted my weary spirits and made this time apart a bit more bearable.

20200318_171030Day 5 of Spring Break Quarantine: The weather foiled our attempts to get some fresh air. The rain came tumbling down upon us and drove us back indoors. Since it did not cease until after dinner, we were a bit more desolate than usual. The dreary day made our spirits even drearier.

Thankfully a delivery of food arrived from the local market, so I had some beautiful carrots and potatoes to accompany my roast. I also made some biscuits to round out the evening meal.

My daughter decided we needed a special project to busy ourselves, idle hands and all…so she suggested baking cookies. Sugar cookies were her choice so that we could make a thorough mess of the kitchen. They have special unicorn chips in them and are quite tasty. But now we have three dozen cookies and only four of us. Normally I would take these extra goodies into school to share with my students, but alas, since school is not in session and we are quarantined, we will have to put our best effort forward and make sure none of these precious morsels are wasted. In hindsight, I should have frozen half of the dough. Clearly I have not adjusted to this new world we find ourselves in.

My son found solace in his drawing lessons and my daughter in her music. I retreated into books again, and have finished my fifth book during this isolation.

20200319_164603Day 6 of Spring Break Quarantine: Today we actually left our home! What was originally supposed to be our day of rest in between two whirlwhind visits, first with family in the bustling city of Orlando, and then with friends in the quiet countryside of Athens, was instead the first day we’d left our neighborhood in nearly a week.

Fear not dear friends, our sojourn into the world did not put us at risk. We had to pick up some medicine from our local apothocary and also had to stop by the local market to acquire some additional ingredients for our meals. We did not actually venture in to either of these establishments, but waited for our items to be passed to us outside. We were back home in less than half an hour.

We were home in time to take our morning constitutional, which was much needed, especially when the rain picked up again and our evening one had to be forgotten.

After luncheon, we moved to the parlor where we wiled away the afternoon playing games the children invented, which were surprisingly amusing. Later, while the children played more games remotely with their cousins, I found even further entertainment from one of my favorite musical groups, The Indigo Girls. They had a concert in their parlor and invited the world to watch. I was so excited at how so many people who were so very far apart were brought together through the wonders of this modern age. My heart delighted in it and I may have danced in my kitchen.

20200320_105341Day 7 of Spring Break Quarantine: It’s been a week and the days are beginning to blend into one another.

One noticeable difference was that my husband was not needed in town until later in the day, so he spent the morning with us. The children were happy to have some time with their father, and disappointed he had to leave before our morning constitutional around the neighborhood. It was windy and the sky was overcast, but it was suprisingly warm. Although we wore our coats, we almost didn’t need them. It gave me hope that maybe we’d see the sun again soon. My spirits were further lifted when my daughter reached for my son’s hand and he actually let her take it for a few minutes as they walked.

Once home, we sat and wrote letters to some of our nearest and dearest. My daughter was excited to post hers, but was filled with grief when I informed her that her cousins would not get her letter or the game she sent them for several days.

Upon my husband’s arrival back home, we decided to play parlor games. My daugther chose Apples to Apples and we had a delightful time playing with words and clever turns of phrase. Once again, I won, much to my husband’s chagrin.

I was downtrodden when one of the avocados was completely spoiled, but still managed to produce a passable guacamole that my family loved with the remaining fruits. It complemented the tacos perfectly. Even during a pandemic, it is hard to complain when there are tacos.

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Royal Caribbean: Brilliance of the Seas Minstrel Dining Room

20191231_181140With four children, three of whom were hungry, restless almost teenage boys, we knew the Windjammer Cafe buffet was going to be our main source of food on our cruise. But since we were celebrating not only New Year’s Eve, but also a birthday, we wanted to make at least a few nights a bit fancy by eating in the Minstrel Dining Room.

At first our boys were a little reluctant, until we mentioned that while it might not be a seemingly never ending buffet, they could order more than one appetizer, dessert, and even main dish if they wanted to. And of course, they did!

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On this cruise, my son was about two months shy of his 13th birthday and very tired of ordering off of children’s menus. He’s a very adventurous eater and always wants to try exotic things on menus. Unfortunately, those things are often some of the most expensive on the menu, so he’s been relegated to standard kid’s fair for most of his life. Granted, we do take him to some awesome places that have amazing kids menus, including one that will make junior portions of any regular entree at half price, but for the most part he’s been relegated to hamburgers, pizza, and chicken fingers for a large portion of his restaurant life.

So the chance to order whatever he wanted was pretty much his idea of Nirvana! He salavated over choices of steak, lobster, salmon, Beef Wellington, various tartlets, and escargot. And yes, he did get escargot as ONE Of his appetizers during one of our dining room meals.

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The first night he got salmon (one of his favorite foods) and loved it. The next time when we went to the dining room and he had a choice, he really wanted the salmon again, but he also wanted to try some steak. So we told him what the heck, have them both. He did…and ate every single bite of each meal.

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Thankfully the portions in the dining room are not huge. Even I found myself torn between two appetizers, but didn’t feel bad about ordering both as I knew the portions would be reasonable. In fact, our first night in the dining room I not only got a tasty pumpkin soup, but also an order of calamari. In fact, everyone in my family got calamari and my son got escargot and calamari.

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My absolute favorite appetizer was a slice of brie, which was lightly breaded and fried and served with a delicious raspberry compote. It was the perfect blend of salty and sweet. My son also got that one, along with a shrimp cup.

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My brother-in-law and I were thrilled when one night they offered a caprese salad as an appetizer. It was light, refreshing and tasty! Then again, I am always a sucker for a caprese anything.

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I was a bit wary of ordering the lobster dinner on New Year’s. It’s so easy to overcook lobster and I figured so many people on the ship would be ordering it in celebration that it might be quite overdone. My worries were completely unfounded. My lobster was perfect. My son was thrilled that he got one of his very own instead of just a small bite of mine per our usual routine.

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My favorite meal was the steak with a mushroom sauce, mashed potatoes and asparagus. The beef was perfectly cooked and the mushroom sauce was light but rich. I could have used a few more stalks of asparagus, but it was otherwise delicious.

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Of course, dessert was a highlight for all of us. I think my favorite one was an apple pie blossom with vanilla ice cream. Interestingly, it was the same exact one I get at a local restaurant (clearly a food service type dish), but I just love them so much that I didn’t even care.

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My son was super excited about trying Baked Alaska. I am not a meringue fan, so I didn’t try this one, but he said it was fantastic.

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My daughter was excited about her banana split, even if she didn’t eat the banana! She really just wanted the ice cream, but her brother was fine with that as he got to eat her ice cream tinged bananas!

My nephews were all about the lava cake with ice cream. I got it too and was happy that the cake was moist and just warm enough to get the ice cream melting.

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My husband was all about the creme brulee. He also really loved the apple blossom with ice cream and ordered it twice in the dining room.

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The only dessert I was not overly fond of was the peach shortcake parfait. The description sounded great, but it was mostly air and not much flavor. There was a ton of whipped cream-like topping and a tiny piece of sponge cake in there, but there wasn’t much peach to speak of.

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Still, one mediocre dessert compared to a whole bunch of yummy appetizers, main dishes, and actually brilliant desserts is not something to complain about. While I wouldn’t want to miss out on all the AMAZING Indian food at the Windjammer Cafe buffet, I am glad we ate a few meals in the main dining room. The kids had a blast, got to try lots of new food, and we all got to be a bit fancy!

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Royal Caribbean Cruises: El Mirador, Cozumel

20191231_140537I am not sure there is much that outshines the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean sea. I love looking out at the gradations of blue as the water stretches out to the horizon. It is peaceful and idyllic. It seems too beautiful to be real.

The Brilliance of the Seas, my Royal Caribbean cruise ship, docked in Cozumel on the morning of New Year’s Eve. The weather was a sunny 85 degrees and the wind was gentle and not really cooling unless you were standing in the shade. We had booked an excursion to visit the Mayan ruins at San Gervasio and the Mayan Cacao Company, but did not realize our tour would include a drive around nearly all of the island and include a stop at a beach where we’d get to see the Caribbean Sea.

When Edwin, our absolutely delightful guide mentioned the stop, we were pretty excited. We’d gotten to swim with dolphins in Grand Cayman, but had only glimpsed the water from the dolphin place.

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We stopped at El Mirador (The Looking Glass). Although it was clearly a place that gets thousands of tourists each year, it wasn’t a typical tourist beach. The sands weren’t pristinely white and it was not littered with umbrellas and people sunning themselves. What made this beach so spectacular was the intricate coral rock that has been formed into a bridge of sorts.

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While anyone can run into the water and frolic, one of the coolest things to do is climb the coral rock because there is an outstanding view from the top. It is a bit dangerous as that coral is jagged and if you fall, it will cut you. Edwin warned us to be careful. I didn’t let my kids climb on it. While I wouldn’t say I struggled, it was not an overly easy climb. Like any other type of coral, it is porous and there are a lot of cracks and crevices. It’s very easy for feet to get stuck or people to trip.

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But, if you make it up, it is a wonder to behold.

 

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El Mirador also has a few fun little shops and a place to get a tropical drink in a coconut shell. I was tempted to get one, but we had to get back in the van soon and I was worried I’d spill it. Since I ended up getting a chocolate daiquiriat the Mayan Cacao Company, this ended up being a good call.

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If you are in Cozumel and looking for something fun to do, I HIGHLY suggest checking out El Mirador.

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Royal Caribbean Cruises: Mayan Cacoa Company Excursion

20191231_143345-1In my last blog, I wrote about our fantastic shore excursion to the Mayan ruins at San Gervasio in Cozumel, Mexico. While I loved exploring the ruins and got some amazing pictures, for me the highlight of the trip was our stop at the Mayan Cacao Company. There were a couple different shore excursions coupled with the ruins and when I saw this one that also included a chocolate tour…I was hooked. History and chocolate? Take my money and sign me up!

The Mayan Cacao Company is clearly a happening place to be. It was hoppin! I think half the island may have been there when we arrived, but our amazing guide Edwin got us right on a guided tour of the operation. It began in a room (which was thankfully air conditioned after our rather sweaty time at the ruins) dedicated to the history of chocolate. There were some replicas of Mayan statues, actual cacao pods for us to smell, written and pictorial explanations of the history and chocolate making process and some small artifacts from early chocolate making. Our tour guide gave us about a five minute talk on the cultural significance of early chocolate making.

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Next, we headed down a shaded path, where a beautiful red parrot sat squawking at us. Our guide led us to a thatched hut-like building where people were making a chocolate based mole sauce for us to try. We learned about the process and the importance of mole in Mexican cooking and then got to try a small corn tortilla with the homemade mole on it. Although only the briefest whispers of cocoa were present, I thought it was quite tasty. My husband and son both loved it too. My daughter, the insanely picky eater took a bite, made a face, and handed it over to me. Her brother was eyeing the extra portion so I gave it to him.

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We continued to wind down the path and our guide stopped to show us some cacao trees and explain how they are nurtured and cultivated. She also showed us actual cacao pods on the trees and explained a bit about how they are harvested.

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Along the path we passed another gorgeous parrot. This guy was green and even more talkative. I’m not much of a bird fan, but after their earlier interaction with parrots (they got to hold and play with one), they wanted to stop and talk to these birds too. I took pictures, which was really pretty brave of me!

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The next stop on our tour was the demonstration room. As we shuffled inside, we were handed a little wooden spoon with some not quite liquid, not quite solid chocolate on it. Our presenter explained that it was fresh chocolate which had just been made during the last demonstration. It was DELICIOUS! My daughter, who at least loves pretty much all things sweet, devoured that sample, which was a shame because I definitely wanted another one!

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The demonstration was really pretty cool…and not just because we were in another wonderfully air-conditioned spot. The presentation was about 10 minutes long and explained the entire chocolate making process. The Mayan Cacao Company is true to its roots and at least the initial process hasn’t changed in centuries. Unlike the Mayans though, now the cacao is served in delicious bar form and not as a very watery, very bitter unsugared drink. As we watched, he pounded and ground the spices together to make the samples of chocolate for the next group.

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After the presentation (you can watch thefull version here), we got a chance to try the original Mayan cacao drink if we wanted. Of course my husband, son, and I grabbed some. There was a little station where guests could add some spices like cinnamon to the drink. Man, it was bitter! I cannot believe people actually enjoyed it at all. But I drank it up, even if it made me grimace a bit.

Luckily right next to that cacao station was a bar with frozen chocolate drinks for sale! I guess they also served non-chocolate drinks, but why bother? My sister, husband, and I each grabbed one. Although they all looked pretty much the same, we each tried a different flavor of liquor! I got a chocolate daiquiri, my sister got a chocolate margarita, and my husband got a mud slide. Of course we had to taste each other’s drinks! I think I liked the mud slide the best, but my daiquiri was pretty good. The drinks were made with HUGE chunks of the Mayan Cacao Company’s chocolate. My only complaint is that the chunks did not get blended enough so the bottom of my cup was basically a solid chunk of chocolate.

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As with pretty much every tour I’ve ever been on, it ended in a gift shop. And this was a glorious gift shop! They had samples of each and every one of their chocolate bars (about two dozen). They also had samples of some of their jams. Of course we had to try them all. I was surprised by how much I actually liked their dark chocolate. I don’t know if I’m just slowly becoming a dark chocolate convert or if theirs is just really good, but most of my favorite ones were dark chocolate! However, I ended up buying my favorite bar which was milk chocolate with cranberries, almonds, and grapes. My kids got the milk chocolate and hazelnut bar to share, although they had a hard time agreeing on one bar. My daughter thought they should probably sample all of them twice, but I made her commit to a bar after only one round of sampling!

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As a chocoholic, it’s no surprise that I loved this part of the excursion. If we ever find ourselves back in Cozumel (fingers crossed), I definitely plan to stop by again. If you are cruising the Caribbean and get a chance to stop in at the Mayan Cacao Company, it is a must visit!

 

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Royal Caribbean Cruises: Mayan Ruins at San Gervasio

20191231_123858I’m a sucker for history. I always have been. Not in a “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can” sort of Great Gatsby way. I’m more of a let’s learn all about the past so that we can actually learn from it and also keep a portion of it alive sort of girl. When I was a kid and we went to DC, I was mesmerized by Ford’s Theater and later Gettysburg, even though I am profoundly anti-violence and anti-war. Even as an adult when I found myself visiting a friend in DC and realized he lived a few blocks from Ford’s Theater, I dragged my best friend who was visiting with me over for a tour.

So when we were considering shore excursions on our most recent Royal Caribbean Cruise, I really wanted to visit Mayan ruins during our time in Cozumel. I visited different Mayan ruins on my honeymoon cruise and found them beautiful and fascinating. When I found out that we could explore the ones at San Gervasio on this trip, I definitely wanted my kids to be able to see them. It didn’t hurt that the trip to the ruins was combined with a stop at the Mayan Cacao Company.

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We got off the ship and headed down to find our guide. His name was Edwin and he was spectacular! Since not only lives in Cozumel but also works in the archeology department at one of the colleges, he was full of great information. He was also funny and just so nice! We all loved him, which was good since we spent about 3 hours with him.

To get to the ruins we went on a scenic drive which took about 20 minutes. I’m not sure if it was the most direct path to get there, but it did allow Edwin to tell us quite a bit about life in Cozumel. I had no idea that basically everything in Cozumel has to be shipped in from the mainland and that tourism is basically the only industry on the island. I was also amazed that such a small island (you can drive from tip to tail in about an hour) has three universities/colleges. Even more amazing is how much of the island is uninhabited because it is covered by lush mangrove forests. There are parts of the island that humans aren’t allowed on and that is pretty cool.

We arrived at San Gervasio, which didn’t initially look like much. Edwin gave us our tickets and we headed in. There is a very pretty little courtyard at the entrance. There are some fountains, a small restaurant and a few shops selling mostly jewelry and native crafts. Edwin was leading our tour and wanted to get us in before larger tour groups came through, so there wasn’t really a chance to look around. He did point out the people offering to spray visitors with bug spray for $1 each. I thought this was a bit strange…until I got into the ruins and got more than my share of bug bites. We went in December when Edwin said the bugs weren’t too bad. I cannot imagine what it would have been like had it been June! If you ever visit the ruins, either bring bug spray OR pay the $1. It would have been money well spent and it is my only regret from my day in Cozumel.

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The ruins themselves are interesting. They aren’t as complete or elaborate as the other ruins I visited in Mexico, but this was a much smaller Mayan settlement, so that makes sense. We did see what would have been the king’s palace, the well where their water came from, the altar, the plaza, the big house, the arch, the small house, and the tall house. Of course, we only got to see a portion of the actual ruins. There are actually four “districts” that the ruins are in and only portions of one of the districts is open to the public. The ruins are also part of a wildlife sanctuary and full of iguanas and other lizards. We saw tons of small lizards roaming around the ruins.

You can watch a video of our exploration here.

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My favorite part of the ruins was a structure that I think is referred to as the Murals because it used to have murals decorating its walls. Although these are no longer visible, what I liked was the really cool tree that is growing up through the stone and has burst through the thatched roof overhead. There is just something so beautiful about nature reclaiming something man made.

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I also really like the Las Manitas, which was the residence of the Mayan ruler. It gets its name from the red handprints that are visible on the back wall of the structure. Originally it was an outer room that served as the ruler’s home and an inner sanctum reserved for his personal shrine. Visitors can still make out the two different areas and it’s pretty cool.

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Another really cool part of the ruins is the original stone road that runs through it. Edwin told us that the road actually many miles not only through all of the ruins, but out into the city itself. Apparently it is about 12 miles long and there are people who try to follow it (and sometimes get lost) every year.

We also learned some cool information about why the steps on the altar are so skinny. It’s not that people’s feet used to be smaller. You were not meant to walk up the steps the way we walk up them–forward facing the top of the altar and our back toward the space we left. Instead, you were supposed to walk up them sideways (and at an angle) so that you would always be facing where you were going as well as never turning your back on where you’d been. For the Mayans, it was a sign of respect. When walked the correct way, one foot perfectly fits the steps.

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Despite visiting during the “cold” season, it was still in the mid-80’s and since the ruins are largely unshaded, it was hot! We were all withering a bit by the end. Thankfully we got a bit of time at the end to explore the shops. The older I get, the less I want to fill my house with little objects de art, so I don’t really buy souvenirs much. I skipped the stores and went straight for the small restaurant. I needed some more bottled water (we’d exhausted the two bottles we brought in with us). On our arrival, Edwin had mentioned that if we were looking for some authentic Mexican tacos that the restaurant’s were great.

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Now, it wasn’t much of a restaurant. It was open-air with a roof to shade the five or six tables, cooler with drinks, and small counter to order from. There were only two people working. One took orders and one made tacos on a small griddle-like cooking service right behind the counter. The choice was chicken, pork, or the special. I figured I had to go for the special. It turned out to be a combo of egg and pork with some pico-like veggies on top. You could get one taco or three. My son and I were the only adventurous ones in our group. I added some of the green tomatillo sauce to mine and he ate his two just the way they came. They were absolutely delicious and if you get a chance to visit San Gervasio, I suggest you try them.

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Heat and bugs aside, this was a great excursion and I cannot recommend it enough. My family learned so much, we got some wonderful pictures, and got to try some truly delicious food.

Oh, and while I was in the restroom, the rest of my family ran into a man with a GIANT bird who was offering to let people take pictures with it for a small fee. Both of my kids had to do it, so my husband paid the fee and our kids got to play with the bird. I am not really a bird fan, but my kids adored it and love to talk about their friend the parrot.

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If you are looking for a truly fantastic shore excursion in Cozumel, I highly recommend the Mayan ruins and Mayan Cacao Company combination.

 

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Royal Caribbean Cruise: Dolphin Push-Pull Shore Excursion in Grand Cayman

20191230_074625When I sat down to look at the shore excursions for our Royal Caribbean cruise on Brilliance of the Sea, I was ooverwhelmed. We only had two stops on our 5 night cruise, but there were at least 100 different options. While there may have only been a dozen or so basic components, there were so many combinations of those different components that I broke down after the third page of options. Finally I just sent my mom and sister some generic options: beach, animal encounters, historical sites, or something sporty.

Ok, I just threw that last one in as a joke. I knew no one in my family was going to pick something actually sporty. There are definitely several physical options for any shore excursion, but my people are not the sporty types. In all fairness, two of the group have limited mobility, so it’s understandable that we had to pick activities that were a bit lower-intensity.

The kids all wanted some sort of animal encounter. When I was listing some of them off to my mom, she was very keen on a sea turtle adventure. My kids thought that would be pretty cool too. And they even offered sea turtles with an additional option of stingrays. My daughter was not too keen on that one. But then my sister told my nephews that swimming with dolphins was an option and the decision was made.

That’s how we found ourselves sitting in the Pacifica theater at 6:45 in the morning on the third day of our cruise. No one was particularly happy to know that that particular hour still existed on vacation. When we signed up for the excursion it definitely did not mention the need to get up before the sun in order to hang with Flipper. If they had, I think my mom might have insisted on befriending Crush and Nemo instead.

20191230_110814But, we’d pre-booked and we were not about to cancel and lose that money, so when our group number was called we headed down to disembark. We had to get the tender boats over to Grand Cayman and all 9 of us boarded together and tried to stifle our yawns as we made our way to the shore. Once there we were bustled into vans with about half a dozen other group members and we set off for our adventure. Our van was just doing the dolphin swim. The other van that drove behind us had one of those combo deals and was heading off to a beach after we finished.

I had no idea what to expect. It was actually pretty confusing at first. We were one of the earliest groups to arrive, but it still took our guide about 10 minutes to get everything squared away. We’d been told we could bring cameras, but once we entered in to Dolphin Discovery, the employees told us we had to leave everything in the provided lockers. Aside from our suits, and our locker keys and our shoes (which we took off close to the pools, everything else had to be left behind. I was disappointed as I wanted to take some pictures of my kids frolicking with dolphins.

20191230_081819Once our gear was stowed, we were taken over and given life vests. We were then split into groups of 10. Somehow we got separated from the rest of our family, so instead of one big family group, it was my family of 4 with 6 strangers. They were very nice people, but I had hoped to share the experience with my entire family.

Our group headed over to a large pool-like area. I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but I found this picture of it, so hopefully that will help. Our “pool” was at the far left-side of the picture–it’s the large one. Ours was actually divided into two with our group down on the non-sandy side. All 10 of us got into the water. There was a ledge about 3 feet wide and about 3.5 feet deep that ran the length of the area. Since only one person could swim with a dolphin at a time, it was a good waiting spot for the rest of us.

The weather was beautiful (in the mid 80’s) and the water was warm. Our instructor introduced us to Sherlock, our dolphin. Sherlock was charming and very well-trained. He waited patiently as our guide explained the “pull” part of our adventure. Each person would swim along the wall a little less than halfway out. Then, when given the signal, we’d swim about halfway into the middle of our “pool.” Our right arm would be outstretched ready to grab Sherlock’s fin when he came around and our left would be bend across our chest in order to grab hold of his flipper. Then Sherlock would pull us back to the ledge.

20191230_093226While we were waiting for the first person to swim out and get in position, Sherlock posed with the rest of us. We each got four non swimming interactions with Sherlock. We got to dance with him, get a kiss from him, give him a kiss, and hold his face next to ours. Each of these interactions were photographed for us and after the encounter we’d have the chance to buy our photos, hence why we weren’t allowed to bring cameras.

Frolicking with Sherlock was fun. He was very sweet. I’d never touched a dolphin before. His skin was sort of rubbery. His fins were oddly hard, but also flexible, which was such an odd combo.

When it was my turn to swim out, I did, worrying the entire time that I’d mess up and end up missing Sherlock. Thankfully Sherlock was a pro and our instructor told me when to grab, so I caught on the first time and Sherlock sped me to shore. Now, I am not a tiny person, but that dolphin had no problem pulling all of us back to the ledge, even the gentleman in our group who had to weigh close to 250.

After getting pulled by Sherlock, everyone was laughing. We all clearly enjoyed it. Well, everyone except my daughter. Her anxiety kicked in pretty hard core and she decided she did NOT want to swim out there (she gets very anxious in water). Our instructor offered to let her start from the ledge and have Sherlock just take her a small way and then turn around, but even that scared her. When he realized this, he was great with her. He let her play a few fetch games with Sherlock, so even though she didn’t do the swimming, she still felt connected to him and had fun.

Once our “pull” was done, it was time for the “push.” For this we each used a boogie board and swam out to the middle of the “pool” again. This time we had to lay on the board with our legs completely straight behind us. Sherlock’s job was to put his nose on one of our feet and “push” us back to the ledge. I watched as the first person, a young girl was pushed back to us. She zoomed at us giggling the entire time. Her dad was not as successful. He couldn’t keep his leg straight and Sherlock had to nudge him several times. He eventually got it and came at us a bit slower. When it was my turn I was once again worried I’d bend my leg and mess it up (like my husband did), but I managed to keep my leg rigid and Sherlock flew me through the water. Not nearly as fast as she shot my son through it though. He was like a 5 foot, 90 pound torpedo. I was worried he’d crash into us. But Sherlock knew when to stop and he came floating in.

When were were done, we changed back into our clothes and headed into the gift/photo shop. I took one look at the prices and realized no matter how cute they might be, there was no way we were buying them. To get all pictures for our group of 4 would have been about $250. I loved the experience, but to me it was more important to have it than to capture it on film. I would have liked one to, but I knew if I saw one, I’d want them all. So instead I let my son buy a little bottle of Grand Cayman sand in a bottle, and I bought a can of Pringles for my family to share.

Swimming with dolphins was something I’d always wanted to do and I was glad we got to. Even if my daughter was a bit scared, she had a blast and fell in love with Sherlock. It was definitely worth it!

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Royal Caribbean Cruises: The Pacifica Theater

20191229_001033One of the reasons I love cruising is because I don’t have to “go out,” in order to be surrounded with tons of great entertainment. My latest cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas was basically a miniature floating Vegas. Both have tons of bars and lounges. Both allow you to openly carry drinks as you stroll around. Both are brilliantly lit and have casinos. Both have FOOD, FOOD, and more FOOD. Both have elaborate stage shows with a little something for everyone.

The only real difference is that the cruise ship has kid-friendly activities and no one trying to hand me flyers for escorts or sex shows.And It’s actually why I prefer cruising to Vegas.

On our first night we decided to see the Welcome Aboard Show in the Pacifica Theater, which had bits of every major act on the cruise. It started with a welcome from our cruise director, who was both funny and charming. He was followed by a comedian whose name I have forgotten. He actually only did the opening show and then a 10 pm adult show because he was getting off of the boat in Grand Cayman to join another cruise. At first I thought he was kind of funny, but then he started telling a ton of jokes about a woman he called “Orca” who was parasailing on a beach in Mexico. He then proceeded to tell pretty much every fat girl joke that exists. It was so trite and cheap, that I almost left the theater. Thankfully the kids didn’t really seem to understand him, but the adults in our group were not amused.

20191229_195929I’m glad I didn’t leave, because there were also some really fun musical numbers. I’m a sucker for musicals, especially Broadway-esque style musicals full of elaborate costumes and dance numbers. The few songs they performed were upbeat and even had the audience singing along, especially to “Sweet Caroline.” Even my kids sang along. It was pretty standard variety show fair, but everyone in our group of 9 liked the musical numbers.

My sister and brother-in-law went to see The Company Men, a group that describes itself as Motown meets Boy Band. Although I had wanted to see the show, I knew I wanted to do karaoke that night and since there was a limited karaoke window of only an hour, I had to get there early to get a seat and to sign up. So my sister and BIL went on without us. They raved about the show. My sister said they had amazing voices. She was excited when she saw the performers the next night hanging out in the Colony Club where we were once again waiting for karaoke. Sadly they did not perform for karaoke, but did stay and cheer on the cruisers.

20191229_195925My absolute favorite performance, was by Aaron Bonk, a comedy juggler. I know that may sound a bit lame, but this guy was crazy talented. And potentially just a bit crazy. Bonk is actually holds four Guiness Book of World Records. All of his records center on his whip cracking skills, which are very impressive…and very dangerous. A good portion of his live shows centers on his whip skills, although on the cruise ship he cannot perform them all as several center around fire. Fire on cruise ships is a big no-no, so instead Bonk showed us this video of his most recent record for fire whip cracking while in a full body burn. What possesses someone to even think up a stunt like this is beyond me. It was definitely a bit scary to watch, even though I knew that since he was standing on the stage that he was fine. He was funny and talented. We all loved him. When we told my son and nephew who did not want to see the show what they had missed, they were very upset they decided to play video games in the room instead of joining us. My 15 year old nephew loved the show.

Overall I was very impressed with the shows in the Pacifica Theater. With the exception of the comedian, everything else we saw was great. We laughed, we sang, we clapped. We had a good time. My nephew was a bit worried he might get bored on the cruise, but thanks to shows like this, he never did. Cruisses are so much more than just buffets, pools, and ports of call. Each ship offers unique entertainment options. Just like Vegas, there are all kinds of shows you can see. They may not have six different Cirque du Soleil shows going on on board, but they have so much to offer travelers.

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Royal Caribbean Cruises: Briliance of the Seas Windjammer Cafe

20191228_120846When I told my nine year old daughter that we were going on a cruise, she cried. They were not tears of joy.

She’d been on a cruise once before when she was 5 and had a pretty scary experience. We were at the pool enjoying our very first few hours at sea when a boy much larger than she was ran on the small inch deep section she’d been playing in, and knocked her over into a deeper part of the pool. If this image is hard to picture (because it is definitely hard to explain), the picture below shows the different depths of the pool. Luckily I was right there, jumped in, and saved her. But still, she had horrible memories of it and did NOT want to go on another cruise. There were tears, there were protests. It was initially pretty awful.

20191228_164226So I slowly started reminding her of all the good, not scary parts of a cruise. I think it was when I said the magic word–BUFFET–that she stopped her tears.

My kids both ADORE buffets. They beg and plead for them. I am not really a fan, but my daughter, who has some major texture issues and is a rather picky eater, loves them. I think it’s mostly a chance to find foods she feels completely comfortable with and definitely knows. The rest of us are rather adventurous eaters and love Indian, Thai, and Cajun food, all of which she despises. But a buffet means everyone will be happy, right?

So, when I told her that she could eat several of her meals not only with her cousins (who she adores), but also at a buffet, she was suddenly delighted. I’m the opposite. The older I get, the less enamored of buffets I am. With the exception of The Wicked Spoon at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, as an adult, I have never been to a buffet that has blown me away.

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And I was not blown away by The Windjammer Cafe on Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas. Breakfast had pretty standard breakfast fair. There were made to order omelette stations, which I skipped because I did not want to wait in the daily lines. There was also just about every form of breakfast meat available. There were biscuits and gravy (with very bland gravy), grits (which were even blander), and several different ways to eat eggs. There were several dozen different types of breads and pastries. My daughter was THRILLED that there were donuts. When I told her she couldn’t have one because she’d had one the morning before, she was quite upset. But then she found out they had pancakes and a topping bar with chocolate sauce, so she thwarted my attempt to get her to eat something healthy by getting two of those. There were also several types of cereal and yogurts. My personal breakfast favorite (aside from the bacon) were these little yogurt, fruit and granola parfaits. I ate one every day. They were super tasty and very impressive.

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For the most part it was like every other decent, but not exciting breakfast buffet I’ve ever been to. In all fairness, I’m not much of a breakfast fan, so I was bound to be underwhelmed. My kids, gave it two thumbs up for breakfast.

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Lunch was a bit more my speed. There were a variety of sandwiches and chicken, tuna, and egg salad to make my own. There were also a lot of different cold salads. I’m always a huge fan of those. Sadly, they only had the delicious chickpea salad on the first day of the cruise. If I had known that I would have had more of it. I appreciated the traditional salad bar as well as it helped me feel I could offset some of the unhealthier options. One thing I noticed was a lack of cooked veggies, so it was nice to always have salad options. There wasn’t much variety of fruit, but if you like melon and pineapple, this buffet will be heaven. My kids were happy that they could get burgers, hot dogs, and pizza every day for lunch. Since my daughter would pretty much live on pizza and hot dogs if I let her, she was thrilled. She was also thrilled with the dessert table at lunch. She loved having access to the ice cream machine, cookies, cakes, jello and fun parfait creations. My favorite thing about lunch was the chocolate and vanilla swirl soft serve. I have always been a sucker for a swirled cone!

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One big draw of cruises is having dinner in the formal dining room. It’s fun to get a little dressed up and order fancy meals and desserts. We did eat three of our meals in the fancy dining room, but dinner was actually when the buffet had the biggest draw for us: Indian food. Oh my goodness…this cruise had some fantastic Indian food. Every night there were at least two different offerings, one with meat and one vegetarian as well as either roti or papadums. I think I may have eaten my weight in papadums over the course of the cruise. I tried every single Indian dish they offered in the Windjammer and there wasn’t one I didn’t LOVE.

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After spending the day at Grand Cayman, the feature at the buffet was Caribbean and Indian cuisine. That night there were four different Indian offerings as well as Jamaican meat patties, fried plantains, and jerk chicken. It was, without a doubt, the best food I had on the cruise. I could have eaten it every single night and been blissfully happy. My mom, husband, and son who also love Indian food agreed. It was spiced perfectly. I had been worried that since it was being mass produced for a cruise that the flavors would have been dulled down to suit all taste buds, but that was not the case. It was spicy and flavorful and amazing! I definitely needed some extra water that night.

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For those who needed some milder dishes (like my nephews and daughter), there were still some great offerings at dinner. Every night there were a couple of different chicken and pasta dishes. There was always a carving station with roast beef, ham or chicken ready to be served. Just like lunch, there were two different salad bars, and tons of different  rolls. One of my personal favorite items was the steak, pork chops, and chicken they had cooked to order. I wanted a steak one night, so I walked up to the counter and ordered it medium well. It was done in a few minutes and it was tasty. Every night they had made to order options. One night they had a stir-fry option. One night it was a make your own pizza option. The night we were in Cozumel The Windjammer Cafe had a Mexican fiesta, but since it was New Year’s Eve, we decided to eat in the formal dining room to celebrate. I am still a bit sorry we missed this night as Mexican food is my favorite.

And of course, my favorite part of any meal is dessert. Like most buffets, dessert can be hit or miss. They often look much better than they taste. But let’s face it, it’s easy to make desserts look good. The plate below is a perfect example. And yes, I did try some of all four. The pecan pie and coconut cookie were just ok. Nothing special. I only had about two bites of each. But, the lemon meringue pie and the sugar free chocolate mousse were fantastic! I actually hate meringue, but this one was delicious. It wasn’t the stiff meringue I’m used to, so my guess is that it was some sort of hybrid recipe, but even as full as I was, I could have eaten a dozen of these. The lemon was so tart that it made the back of my mouth water a bit, just like I like it. And despite being a no sugar added dessert, that dark chocolate mousse was delish! I also had an insanely good chocolate cherry parfait dessert one night, but sadly the picture did not turn out very well.

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One of my favorite things about the Windjammer was the different seating options. Because it was pretty crowded in the morning, we often found ourselves eating in the outdoor section of the restaurant, which was right at the back of the ship. We had some lovely ocean views and breezes as we dined. I also like the veranda area which is still air-conditioned, but set off and a bit quieter. Since the walls are floor to ceiling windows, there were lovely views while we ate. We found ourselves sitting by windows several times, and it just added to the relaxing vacation vibe I wanted.

While The Windjammer Cafe may not be the most impressive buffet I’ve ever eaten at, it was pretty good. I would definitely suggest the formal dining room for breakfast (eggs Benedict!), but it was great for a light lunch and the Indian and Caribbean food at dinner blew me away. It may be a few more years until we find ourselves traveling the high seas again, but after this experience, I know it will be far easier to get my daughter on board!

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Travel Tuesday: Royal Caribbean Brilliance of the Seas balcony rooms

balcony view.jpgMy family and I just returned from a 5 night cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas. This was actually our second trip on the Brilliance of the Seas, and this time I felt like I had a real handle on the ship. We did a 4 night Thanksgiving cruise on Brilliance of the Seas a few years ago with my in-laws. It was fun, but this trip was about extended family and cousins, so I knew there was going to be a different vibe entirely.

This cruise there were 9 of us: myself, my  husband, our kids (aged 9 and 12), my sister, her husband, their kids (aged 13 and 15), and my mom. We knew we were going to need some space, which is not easy to find on a cruise ship. If you’ve never been on a cruise ship before, the first thing you need to realize is that the rooms, even when they give them names like suites and veranda balcony, are usually much smaller than their land counterparts. There are exceptions to every rule, of course. Some of the luxury suites on the larger ships are simply amazing. For example, this Ultimate Family Suite from Royal Caribbean makes me wish I was insanely wealthy and 8 years old.

But, since we are not fabulously wealthy, we decided on balcony staterooms, which not only have a bit more space, but offer a little outdoor get away and spectacular views while sailing. Personally, I love sitting on the balcony and reading a book. It’s the perfect escape from the world. And yes, I may have actually even taken a quick cat nap on my balcony after a VERY EARLY shore excursion in Grand Cayman.

master bed.jpgOur balcony stateroom slept four, although on initial glance, it wasn’t obvious. When we walked in the room, all we saw was the Royal king bed (two twin beds that are joined together) and a couch. Since we’d been on this very ship before, we knew the couch actually folded out to a bed AND that there was a secret bunk bed lurking above it. Each night while we were at dinner, our room steward would turn down our bed, fix the blankets on the bunk bed for our son and pull out and make up the couch bed for our son. Then,  in the morning when we went to breakfast, the couch would be restored so we had more living space.

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Unless you are in a suite, the bathrooms on cruise ships are tiny. But, the designers know how to work with small spaces. There is tons of storage both in and out of the bathroom.

bathrooom 1In the bathroom, one of the mirrors opens to reveal great spaces to store all of your toiletries. The shower may be small, but the shape and curtain mean little water escape and there are several racks for stowing  toiletries as well. The four of us had no trouble fitting all of our bathroom items in the bathroom. It’s important to note that unlike most hotels, cruise ships do NOT provide travelers with toiletries. There was a container in our shower of a combo shampoo/body wash. This was fine for my 12 year old, but the rest of us brought our own shampoos and conditioners. Royal Caribbean also provided small disks of soap in the room, but it’s not like a regular hotel, so bring what you need.

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Plus, there is even a clothes line that stretches across the shower to hang wet bathing suits. There is a surprising amount of towel storage, including four hooks on the back of the door (and the towels are hooked to fit).

dresser.jpgThe closet and desk/dresser also hold hidden places to stow all of your items. After we unpacked all of our clothes (there were only 8 hangers in our room…we had to ask for more), we were able to store our suitcases in the closet floor. Thanks to the built in shelves in the closet, we had plenty of room to store our pajamas, under garments and anything that did not need to be hung in the closet. The dresser/desk also had six drawers, hidden storage behind the mirrors and several shelves on the end where we stored games, books and some toys our daughter brought with her.

medicine cabinet.jpgOne of my favorite things about our room was the giant, heavy curtain that we could pull closed to divide the room in two. That way the kids had their bedroom and so did we. It may not have been perfect privacy, but it did allow my husband and I to read and even stream some shows after our kids had gone to bed. The small bedside lights kept it bright enough for us in our “room,” but the curtain meant the light didn’t disturb the kids. I also really appreciated the bedside tables on either side of our bed for additional storage.

balcony.jpgAnd then there is the balcony. It’s small, but it’s perfect. There are barriers put up on either side so that you don’t have to see your neighbors (but you can definitely still hear them). You get your own little piece of the ocean and it is glorious. I spent quite a bit of time on my balcony just enjoying the quiet, the breeze, and the sun. And the views in the morning and evening were simply magnificent.

Being on a cruise ship is a bit like living in a tiny house. There are hidden spaces for storage and dual purpose items everywhere. What seemed like a bit of a small room turned out to be plenty of room for my family of four. I think the balcony rooms are perfect for families. There is just enough room to spread out a bit, but the rooms are still affordable. They are also highly sought after, so if you want one, better move quickly!

And if you need someone to help you maneuver those sometimes rough vacation waters, drop me a message.

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