Our First Cruise: Miami to Cozumel to Grand Cayman

I’ve been sailing off and on my whole life. For my family, blue water ocean racing was a part of life. We’d go to every year or two to Block Island Race Week with my uncle and had a grand old time.

As an adult, I’ve chartered boats in the BVI’s and enjoyed the heck out of it, but for vacation this year, we decided to do a “Real Life” cruise. I’d always been dismissive of the big cruise ships – “Sailing on a cruise ship is like swimming in a submarine!” – but this time it wasn’t to be about the sailing, it was about a vacation. We wanted to relax and enjoy.

Mrs Geek originally wanted to surprise me for my birthday, but the timing just didn’t work out. She wanted to make sure I’d enjoy the trip, so decided to let me in on the surprise. Our neighbor referred us to a wonderful travel planning couple on CruisePlanners who had helped them put together a whole bunch of trips, so Mrs Geek worked with them to put it all together.

By early December, everything was in place. Our boat would depart Miami on December 12th for a 6 day cruise in the caribbean.

The Runup

There were a ton of logistics and preparation that needed to happen before our trip. Z was kind enough to offer to take care of our dog Daisy while we were gone, and we arranged for the young teen to stay with his dad for the week.

Both Mrs Geek and I went through our ‘tropical gear’ and selected out what we’d bring. I bought a new rash guard swim shirt and shorts, and some good water shoes. Neither of us were in particularly good shape skin-wise to suddenly drop into the tropical zone, so making sure we had good hats and cover-ups was super-important.

We were flying JetBlue – so basically everything above “sardine mode” was an add-on. It wasn’t too bad, I relocated our seats to something that was more comfortable, and paid a little extra to check our bags. We probably could have packed the entire weeks worth of gear into a carryon bag, but it would have been super-tight.

I got my passport renewed, and made sure my TSA PreCheck was valid (it was). The last bit was to pick excursions. We would only be in a destination port two days (Cozumel and the Grand Caymans) spending the other time at sea between those places. Cruise ships have ‘excursions’ where you can choose to do something off the boat while in port. As this was a sort of ‘test trip’, we didnt’ want to do anything crazy, but M had never been snorkeling, so we ended up signing up for two snorkeling outings, one at each port. All of this was done through the cruise company’s website, which helped a lot.

Saturday, December 10th – Massachusetts – T-Minus 2 days until departure.

Z with Daisy

Our boat, the Celebrity Summit, was scheduled to leave on Monday December 12th, somewhere around 3pm. We decided that we should fly down to Miami on Sunday the 11th and stay at a hotel there for the night… , boats wait for no one – once they leave the dock, if you’re not on it, you’ve literally missed the boat. So arriving the day before allowed for a good safety margin. We spent a chunk of Saturday doing our final packing, and I took Daisy out to Z’s house to stay there for the week. She mostly did okay, though she’s never been a great traveller. Z was super-happy to see her, and after a tasty lunch and wonderful chat, I headed home to finish packing.

Sunday, December 11th, Miami – T-Minus 1 day until departure

Stretched out on the plane

Our plane was scheduled to leave Logan airport at 8:15am, so we staggered out of bed at 4:30am to hit the road. We decided the best arrangement would be to drive to Framingham and park the car at Logan Express, and take the bus in. It was easily the least expensive arrangement ($7/day parking, and $11 each way for the bus tickets. Really a no brainer). The buses leave Framingham every half hour, so we timed it to take the 5:30 bus, getting us to the airport about 6:15. Everything worked perfectly here, with us rolling into Logan right on time.

We got through security and had our last Dunkin Donuts meal (“seeya Boston!”), and boarded the flight to Miami. I was really happy I had changed my seats to an exit row – I was able to stretch out my legs and doze for most of the 3 hour flight down.

There were a couple fun moments on the way, but no drama, and by noon, we were in Miami.

Miami Beach

What can I say about Miami? It really looks and feels the Miami Vice theme song with palm trees, condominiums, warm sun, and beaches. Our hotel was actually located in Miami Beach, so we took an Uber from the airport to there, and checked into a nice hotel just off the beach. We were both pretty tired, but I wanted to go for a walk. Mrs Geek crashed and I went exploring.

Us on the beach

Miami Beach is sort of neat. I got a chance to go onto the beach and wander around a bit. I found the Lincoln Road Market, and thought it was super-interesting. After waking up M from her nap (CMON! THIS IS COOL!), we wandered around the market and saw some neat art and got a bit of a feel for the area. Fortunately we also had time to visit the beach just as the sun set (so no baking for us on the first day), then had a lovely dinner at an open-air restaurant. We were still pretty tired from the long day, so turned in early.

Monday, December 12th, Miami – Departure day

Time to go!

After a decent breakfast in the hotel, we checked out, called an Uber, and headed over to the Port Miami – the cruise terminal – about 3 miles away. We were excited and nervous, but so far the trip had gone pretty much as planned. No surprises, no disasters. We were here, we were on the way to the boat, and things were good. We started to relax.

Port Miami is basically just like an airport, except for cruise ships. Each of these ships carries anywhere from 1500 to 3000 passengers, and on departure day, every single one of those passengers shows up in a short timeframe (usually a few hours). The ports have gotten very good at handling the steady stream of taxies, shuttle busses, Ubers and Lyfts dropping people off.

Our boat was one of 5 or so docked – some were in mid turnover, some were taking on new passengers, some had just arrived and were still disembarking. Even though the port was busy, things moved along pretty well. We unloaded our luggage and met a porter who took the bags and pointed out where we should go to get on board. All the luggage is tagged with your name, boat, and stateroom, and gets delivered to the boats by the port personnel. This makes a lot of sense, as having all the passengers manhandle their bags through the terminal, across the gangways, and through the ship would just be a nightmare. The promise was the luggage would be delivered outside our room by 6pm (we boarded around 2p)… they showed up around 4p, so that was pretty cool.

It’s hard to explain what it’s like stepping on a cruise ship for the first time. I guess the first thing to get over is… they’re enormous. The Summit is 965 feet long, has 11 decks, has a crew of a thousand, and supports 2100-2200 passengers (for our trip, the boat only at 1600 passengers, but that’s still a lot of people). And the Celebrity is not considered a ‘large’ cruise ship (For example, the Celebrity Apex, which we saw several times, has 2 more decks and can take 3400 passengers and 1200 crew)

The second point is – they are absolutely beautiful. It was like being in a 5 star hotel… everywhere. Carpeting, artwork, details in the stairs, the elevators, the open spaces – it was really hard to remember you were on a BOAT. They are truly resorts on the water. I spent the first few hours agape at everything from the basic public spaces, to the pool deck, to the 3 tier theater, to the casino… it was a lot.

We received our ‘Sea Pass’ – each of us got one – basically our stateroom key cum identification badge. It’s an RFID enabled card that has our room information and personally identifies us. Because we had a credit card on file for the room, we could use the card to purchase things, open our stateroom door, and sign on and off the ship.

Celebrity provides a mobile app for phones that was very helpful. You could use it to browse available excursions, see the daily schedule (which was busy), or use it’s built-in chat function to keep in touch with other people. We had signed up for the basic internet service, which was indeed quite basic – enough to see our mail and do (very slow) chats and web stuff, but the on-boat app was a better approach. The app had some problems, so it wasn’t a perfect solution, and I’ll be writing up some feedback to Celebrity about it. There’s a real opportunity for a mechanism to network and communicate here, and I think they’re missing it. (That combined with my inability to see the daily schedule after mid-week made it frustrating).

The app walked us through the last bits of signing onto the boat, including a (sort of well done) tutorial on safety procedures, as well as the ‘final checkin’ where we went to our muster station and met with a crewmember who did our last checkin bits. From then on, we were fully on board.

Leaving Port Miami

Around 3:30, there were three loud blasts from the horn on the ship, and we cast off from the dock. Mrs Geek and I had found our way forward to what would be one of our favorite spots. A “Sky Lounge” that had enormous windows looking out over the bow. It was a relatively quiet space – had a very old school lounge/bar feel, and we made our first friends there, a couple named Jason and Amanda. We sat there watching Port Miami slide by as we headed out into the Atlantic.

Our meal plan had us set up for dinner at 5:30, so we went back to our cabin, got some slightly nicer clothes on, and headed to the restaurant.

Now, on this ship, there are somewhere between 5 and a thousand places to eat. At the “largest and most generic”, there’s the Oceanview Cafe. This takes up the back third of deck 10, and during mealtimes, can have something like 10 different stations, ranging from cut-to-order haunches of meat, to breads and charcuterie, to build-your-own panini/omelet/stir-fry, to local faves like steamed yucca and fried plantain, to salad/fruit salad/pasta salads, to decadent desserts. From Southern grits, to English blood sausage, to Vietnamese fried rice, to Indian daal and congee, to slow-braised Moroccan lamb. More on this in a bit. There are several other restaurants that run up the scale to ‘super-foodie haute cuisine’. We had opted for a middle of the road meal plan, that included meals in the middling restaurants. This night M had a pork chop with a delicious raisin and cider sauce, and I had some spaghetti bolognese. There were relatively small portions (you never have the opportunity to starve on a cruise ship, so small dinner portions are common). While the food was fine, and the service was okay, we found ourselves a little disappointed. I understand many people are ALL IN on the restaurant experience, but we found it time consuming with every request going through the staff, and they were very busy with all the tables. The selection was fine, and for some I’m sure it was enjoyable, but it wasn’t our jam, so after this one dinner, we chose to have all our meals in the Oceanview for the rest of the week.

Now, about the Cafe.

The Oceanview Cafe (stock pic)

You can think of the Cafe as a high quality food court of the seas. A dozen or so stations, all with different foods and types. Because everyone is on a meal plan, there’s no cost differences, no tipping, you just pick what you’d like to eat, and take it. I was really concerened this would lead to us overeating, but it encourages taking small portions and eating well. I ate better (like, healthier and more regularly) than I do at home, because it removed the ‘what do i make’ and ‘do i feel like cleaning it up’ question. I picked what was healthy and tasty and good, and there it was. This was a very pleasant revelation, and as I said before, we ended up taking all the rest of our meals here (I think I did one jaunt to the burger bar, which is out on the pool deck, about 50′ away, but that was it). The other win was this place was open basically from 6am through later-than-i-was-up (I was able to get pizza at midnight one night). Obviously not all the stations are open all the time, but juice, water, snacks, basic food was always available. That was lovely.

Performance in the theater

In the evening, we went to a show in the nice and well equipped theater. This place was lovely. Two tiers of seats, probably seating for 600 or so. Very comfortable ‘cabaret’ style tables at each seat. The show we saw was a ‘Tina Turner’ tribute, with an outstanding vocalist and a live band backing her. Lots of great energy and a great venue. A perfect way to cap the day.

The show ended around 7:45, and we decided to pop into the ‘Silent Disco’. If you’ve never heard of this, basically everyone gets a set of headphones. There are 3 channels to listen to, run by 3 different DJ’s). The headphones have a color (red, green, blue) showing which channel it’s on. If you see someone with the same color as your headphones, you’re listening to the same music.

The Silent Disco

This was… remarkably fun! We danced for quite a while, sometimes switching between the channels – it was interesting watching groups move from one channel to another (like at some point one of the DJ’s spun “Shout”, and we could hear folks singing it, so we all switched over to it – after a few moments, most of the people in the lounge had green headphones.

After that, we took a nighttime walk around the decks (we were well out into the ocean now and on our way past the Keys), and turned in for the night.

Tuesday, December 13th, Gulf of Mexico – At Sea

Tuesday was an ‘At Sea’ day, meaning we spent the entirety of the day sailing across the Gulf of Mexico – out of sight of land the entire time. The weather was warm and pleasant, seas were calm. During the entire trip, we barely felt the boat moving (Friday was the only ‘rollier’ day, and it was the first time we really ‘noticed’ any motion – the rest of the time we barely felt it). Part of this was because we were amidship, which is the ‘calmest’ part of the boat, but even fore and aft, we never had any problems with seasickness or similar.

Let me take a moment to talk about our room.

We had a ‘Veranda’ stateroom. This is the “not the bottom of the barrel, but not the Ritz-Carlton” room. It was on the starboard (right for you landlubbers) side of the boat, 7th deck (just above the lifeboats). It has a king sized bed, bathroom, shower, a small comfortable chair and desk, and a closet and table. The furniture and accommodations were all high quality and comfortable (the bed was REALLY comfortable – we slept like logs). We had a room attendant named Prajeet who we met on the first day – he was delightful. Celebrity has adopted a model where the rooms are regularly checked and straightened up and cleaned – so we could go to breakfast, come back and the bed is made and towels are cleaned. If we napped or used the shower or anything, invariably when we came back, the room had been tidied and well kept.

Panoramic of the room. The balcony is directly behind me.
Reverse panoramic. This is like a 215 degree view

But by far the best part was our balcony. I didn’t expect a full walk out sliding glass door space in our room – but here we are. We had little privacy dividers so no one else was peeking in your window, but it was cool to just go out there and you had a glorious private view to – well, mostly the ocean, but anything we were sailing past (which, when in dock, was another ship.)

M on the balcony

It was a little weird that we kept trying close the blinds when changing or similar, and laughed at ourselves “WHO is going to see us? DOLPHINS? We’re good!”

Several times we just hung out on the patio watching the ocean go by. Sunsets were glorious, sunrises were magnificent, and having deck chairs there to just lounge was a delight

We would get up in the middle of the night, open the door, and just watch the ocean go by.

Oh look. Another beautiful sunset.

Throughout the day, we spent time exploring the ship and doing various activities. Celebrity does a great job of presenting lots of options for entertainment and fun, but never forces you into something you don’t want to do. One of my fears for this trip was the whole “YOU WILL HAVE FUN NOW!” that I felt seemed so prevalent in ‘vacation getaway’ plans. There was no pressure to do things you were not interested in or were awkward about.

People seemed to love trivia games, so there were several organized trivia quizzes and games. These were low-key and as competitive as you wanted to be. You could just sit and watch and enjoy, or participate. These were remarkably a lot of fun, and I have to say, we got a lot of the answers wrong :). But for any game, there were anywhere between 10 and 50 people actively playing. It was really nice.

Tuesday night we went to our second show in the theater, this time the performers were an ensemble of dancers and singers doing a full on production for 45 minutes. They do the show twice (once at 7p and once at 9p), and it’s not held back – there’s a lot of energy on the stage. Later M asked the team how it was performing on the ocean. They let on it was quite difficult and challenging, and injuries were all too common. These folks really worked their butts off, and we’re trying to find their names and links so we can boost them and they get some of the credit they deserve. Again, the performance was backed by a live band that was really good and lent it a great broadway-esque feel.

The pool deck at night. Super quiet.

After the show we were getting tired, so we wandered a bit and decided to turn in. For me, I really like the late night downtime. The age range of people on board was all over the map, but I’d say the majority were between 45 and 65. There were kids and teenagers, and there were older folks. The result of this was that after 10pm, things got really quiet. The pool deck was basically abandoned, so while Mrs Geek went to bed, I walked around the mostly quiet ship until about 11:30.

Wednesday, December 14th, Cozumel, Mexico

On Wednesday morning we pulled into the pier in Cozumel quite early. The process of bringing a ship this big into dock is pretty cool, and I was having fun watching the process. Everything was made fast, and we disembarked for some time ashore. The plan was to go on a little excursion on a catamaran ‘sailboat’ to go snorkeling, then spend some time on the beach.

M and I on the catamaran

We showed up right on time to get on the boat (8am I believe), and we headed out. This was our first time to experience something many cruising people have seen… “WAIT FOR MEEEEEEE!” – A couple came up to the pier after the gangway had been pulled back and the catamaran had cast off. “Why didn’t you wait for us??” We weren’t able to hear the whole conversation but we saw lots of looking at watches and hand waving. They showed up at 8:02, and the schedule said “Meet at the end of the pier at 7:45. We are leaving at 8.” – Tough noogies, lady, that’s the schedule! There are many tales of watching people race down the main pier for a cruise boat leaving, but alas we didn’t get to see that happen.

Thumbs up!

The catamaran took us over to an open area of water, and we got a brief overview from the crew. We got snorkels and masks, and because we were actively drifting in the current, we legally had to wear lifejackets. Okay, that was fine. This was M’s first time snorkeling, so having it be easy was a win.

The crew set out a big buoy and basically said “Follow that” and we one at a time jumped into the water. We were in the Caribbean, so it was warm, and clear, and RIGHT, SALT WATER. I took some snootfuls before I realized the last time I was snorkeling, I didn’t have a beard. Beards don’t work well with swim masks, and it took me quite a while to figure out I could holdthe bottom of my mask with one hand to keep the water from seeping in, but I need to find a better way to manage this.

Swimming away!

Here’s where I talk a bit of geekery. For the backpacking trip on cardigan mountain, I bought a Canon TG-6 Ruggedized camera. It’s sturdy, waterproof, and small enough to carry around and not have to worry about it getting wet. The specs say it’s good enough for underwater photography, so I brought it with me on the swim. It’s REALLY STRANGE swimming with a camera on your wrist. Doubly so when you’re looking at it underwater, with the main screen active and the little status light on. I could work the controls and everything, but trying to keep the water out of my mask and work the camera and see the settings without my glasses on was a real challenge. Nevertheless, I had some pics of us in the water and viewing the local wildlife.

M had a great time and her happy sound when she realized she could see underwater and float and just watch the fish and coral was wonderful.

After we snorkeled, we climbed back on the boat and headed to a beach a bit up the coast. Note above I said “sailing” catamaran. It was a cat, and it had a mainsail and jib (the jib was never unfurled), but it was crystal clear the sail had nothing to do with the boat. Big diesel engines moved us along pretty quickly. It looked ‘pretty’ i guess, but the sail had nothing to do without propulsion. I guess it made some people happy.

Once we reached the beach, we had about an hour and a half of… well, what you normally do on the beach. Lounge, have a drink, watch the palm trees, and just enjoy. There were a few small shops (I mean, we’re a cruise ship excursion. Naturally people would be trying to sell things), but they weren’t particularly pushy or problematic. The company doing the excursion, Fury took us to a beach that had a bunch of hammocks, lounges, and other comfy places to hang out, as well as a sort of water park setup, which us older folks didn’t participate in, but looked like fun.

We took great care during the whole outing to make sure we stayed out of the sun as much as possible (as we had spent little time in the tropical sun leading up to this), and also put on sunscreen as needed. It worked! We never got more than a basic tan / little color for the entire trip. I consider this a major victory.

By 3p we were back on board, and took a mighty leisurely afternoon relaxing, then dinner.

For the evenings entertainment, we watched the second show the performers were doing for the week. Again, there was 7p and a 9p show. This time we opted for the 9p show, because at 10:15, the ships on-board comedian was doing his “R-rated” show. We’d seen his “okay for kids” show on Monday, but this one was for adults only, and he sure didn’t pull any punches. Had a great time, and basically fell into bed right after.

Thursday, December 16th – Grand Cayman Island

We had left Cozumel the night before and made the crossing over to Grand Cayman overnight, pulling in mid-morning. It’s about a 300 mile trip. For such a big ship, it moves along pretty fast.

The plan for this stop was to go snorkeling again, and pay a short visit to George Town, the capital of the Cayman Islands and (according to Wikipedia) ‘the world-famous centre for offshore banking and investments.’ There were however a number of new experiences with this excursion.

Lounging by the fountain in George Town

The first difference was we couldn’t dock. Apparently the water is quite shallow around the island, and there’s no way for a cruise ship (which draws about 8m or 26′ of water) to pull up. So any shore trips had to be done via tender. The tenders were basically just big busses, able to cary about 75 people each, to and from the ship. Since we had booked an excursion, we were reserved a seat on one of them, and went ashore.

There, we walked around a big doing a little sightseeing, and M bought herself a new pair of sunglasses (her old ones broke), before we had to meet the boat that was going to take us snorkeling.

There were to be 2 swim spots, one was directly over the wreck of the Cali, a 4 masted schooner sunk in 1944. The wreck was super easy to see from the surface. Unfortunately I have no pictures, due to some unexpected battery draining in my Canon TG-6. We did have a delightful time, and I think this was the point where M decided that learning to scuba dive might be worth pursuing. The fish were absolutely beautiful, and we were able to snorkel all around a beautiful reef with clouds of fish everywhere.

Friday, December 16th, At Sea

On Friday, we spent the day cruising back from Grand Cayman to Miami. This was an “at sea” day, so we spent the entire time out on the ocean. During the night we rounded the westernmost end of Cuba, which we could see (this was around 11pm / midnight), which was pretty interesting, but the rest of the time the only things we could see were occasional glimpses of other cruise ships.

The most entertaining part of Friday was I got involved in a volleyball game in the pool. The arrangement was a bunch of guests got together, were split into 2 teams, and they played each other. Then, 14 or so of the crew got in (marine vs hotel, apparently), and they played each other. The winner of each group then played each other.

This resulted in me being in the pool for something like 2 hours playing volleyball, which was awesome and fun and fantastic, except for the point partway in when I realized I had my phone in my pocket. Yikes! Nothing I could do about it then, it’d been under (salt) water for at least 20m by then, so I put it up on the side of the pool to drip dry, and went back to playing. I had a vague recollection that the Galaxy S9+ was waterproof, but I really had no way of knowing for sure, and certainly not while I was in the pool.

Update: The phone is fine. When I got out of the pool, I tapped on it, and even soaking wet, the screen lit up. So I wiped it down, let it sit in the warm air for a few hours (there was a warning on the screen ‘water detected in charge port!’) – but eventually the message went away and I was able to charge it just fine.

We finished all the games (and, smugly, we won), and I got out of the pool feeling pretty good. Let me point out, by the way, how interesting it is in a swimming pool that is in CONSTANT MOTION. The pool wasn’t particularly big (maybe 25×15) but it was in fact on the deck of a ship under way. So it sloshed. A lot. The water at one end would go from 6′ deep to 3′ deep, and try to carry you along with it when it moved. Talk about an aerobic exercise.

Saturday, December 17 – Going home

We docked back in Miami early on Saturday morning, mostly while I was still asleep. It was sad to be back, but it would be nice to see the family and the dog and everyone again. The trip back was uneventful, other than a few delays with JetBlue and traffic in Boston. In the end, we got back home safe and sound around 6:30pm Saturday night.

What a week!

What We Learned

This trip was really an exploratory journey. We wanted to find out what cruising was like, what worked for us and what didn’t. We’d sure like to explore other places around the world, and cruising is a great way to do it in the easiest, most comfortable way possible. Sure, you don’t exactly get immersed in the local culture, but if you’re looking for a comfortable beautiful vacation with a dose of interesting destinations and excursions, this is a really good way to do it.

Here are some of of our takeaways:

The good…

  • The ship was AMAZINGLY comfortable and enjoyable. The crew, the ship, the food – everything just made us stop worrying about basic things, and just settle into Being.
  • We were surprised at how much exercise we got. Between excursions, walking all over the ship, and dancing, we regularly got 2-3x the steps / exercise we did at home during a normal day. We weren’t even TRYING, that just plain happened.
  • On that front, we were concerned having plentiful food at hand would lead to overeating. On the contrary, not having to prepare or cleanup your food actually (at least for us) had us making much healthier decisions about what to eat and when. We did not overeat or indulge in sweets or fatty stuff at all.
  • If sailing out of a port that’s not near your home, flying out the day before removes a lot of stress. If we had had any problems with the flights and had flown on the day of embarkation, we could easily have gotten stuck. Once the boat is gone, it’s gone.
  • We used a wonderful travel agent – for first time / early cruisers, I think this is a must. They understand the ins and outs of the business far better than us mere mortals.
  • We were surprised about how UN-crowded things felt. You’d think with 2500 people on a boat, it would feel crowded. It never did. There was always space, and plenty of getaway places to go to be by yourself.

The, well, not ‘bad’, but things we might change…

  • Next time we’d like to sail with family and/or friends. I think it’ll change the experience, and now we know if we want privacy / space to ourselves, it’s very easy to get.
  • Now that we’ve experienced shipboard life, I think the next trip should have more interesting / more involved excursions. The ones we just went on were pretty simple. Enjoyable, to be sure, but I think we’d like to look in more long lasting / involved adventures.
  • I need better headphones. There were times I would have liked to quietly listen to music, but my earbuds just aren’t up to it. Need to work on that.

Wrapping Up

This turned into quite the long travelogue. The long and short of it is we had an amazingly wonderful time. We went in with relatively light expectations, so we were pleasantly surprised through the whole experience. Would we recommend this type of vacation to friends? Absolutely! Is it for everyone? Not necessarily, but if I learned one thing, it’s that cruises are a lot more enjoyable than I expected them to be.

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A wandering geek. Toys, shiny things, pursuits and distractions.

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