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Tom Harralson

Age: 52


Number of Cruises: 3

Cruise Line: Royal Caribbean

Ship: Splendour of the Seas

Sailing Date: December 9th, 2006

Itinerary: Western Caribbean

Wanted to squeeze in a quick mini-vacation before Christmas and signed up for 5-day Royal Caribbean cruise on Splendour of the Seas to Western Caribbean (ports of Cozumel and Costa Maya). This was our 3rd cruise on RCCL (Mariner, Navigator, Splendour) and all have been excellent.

Early December seems to offer some excellent cruise bargains. Total costs for us came to $695.50 (ocean view stateroom Deck 3 with over-55 discount) was $269pp, plus $48.75pp pre-paid gratuities, and $30pp soda card). Add in total car rental costs of $69 one-way Enterprise from Houston Bush to Galveston and $56 one-way Hertz from Galveston to Houston Bush. Both car rentals will drop you at cruise terminal or pick you up and deliver you to their nearby office. A caution on driving from Bush (IAH) airport to cruise terminal … it will take you at least 1.5 hours to get there, and Houston rush-hour traffic rivals Los Angeles freeways in its intensity. So if you dislike stop-and-go driving, just add on the cruise line shuttle bus for $90pp instead.

My wife and I were a little nervous about an ocean view room as we have previously rented balcony rooms. The splendor ocean view room had a large 4-foot picture window and it was perfect for the cooler December weather. We loved laying in bed with our pillows on the window sill and staring out at the waves.

Day One:
We arrived in Houston on the same day as the cruise (not recommended because of potential Houston traffic problems), collected our luggage, caught the shuttle bus to the central rental car location, collected our Enterprise rental car and made it to Galveston in record time. Then we turned the wrong direction to get to the Enterprise office (their directions to office are in reverse from cruise ship terminal as they assume you will be dropping off your luggage at the pier first). If you see signs to the Sea Wolf exhibit, you’re going in wrong direction. Enterprise dropped us at cruise terminal and we were on board in 15 minutes. Arrival process is very smooth. If you’re physically capable, just carry (roll) your luggage to your room. There are no stairs (wheel chairs must be able to make it, so your luggage certainly can) and you’ll have your luggage in time for the 6 PM main dining. We made a quick tour of the ship while awaiting departure and got our soda cards (unlimited sodas @ $6 per day versus $1.75 per drink). It was cool (65 degrees) and rainy, so the pool wasn’t very popular. Located the gym at the stern of ship on Deck 9 and worked out for an hour on the elliptical machine. They had 4 treadmills, 4 Elipticals, a half-dozen Cybex weight stations and some free weights. Also mats for Pilates and yoga. Grabbed a shower and noted the Splendour has standard shower curtain versus the much more pleasant sliding curved glass shower doors on Voyager class. We hurried up to main dining and were unpleasantly surprised to find we’d been assigned to a “small” table #060 next to a column and a server station. The dining room staff all work very hard, but their focus is on the larger tables. Also we find that half the fun of a cruise is the unusual assortment of characters that you meet at dinner. The dining on Splendour is good, but not exceptional. Personally, I prefer the Windjammer cafeteria on Deck 9 for a wider array of choices, better and faster service (it’s self-serve), and pure convenience. However, the wife prefers the main dining for the “exotic” dishes and desserts like tiramisu and baked Alaska. The layout of the 42nd Street theater was very good. Here’s a tip: if you arrive late and it’s mostly full, rather than heading down the main aisle and trying to crawl over 20 people to get to an empty seat, head to the left or right wall that appear to be “balcony” seats and you can walk all the way forward to the front 10 rows and access these seats on the “empty” side. We started hitting some small waves (4-8 ft) about 3 hrs after departure. By 9 PM, the small store on board was out of Dramamine.

Day Two:
This was a sea day (or sea sickness day for about half the boat) steaming towards Cozumel. Had no trouble with service as many people were in their cabins. Slept late, worked out for several hours, lazed about, attended a few comedy shows and did nothing in particular. That’s relaxation.

Day Three:
Woke up at 5:30 AM in anticipation of arrival in Cozumel. Repacked my scuba bag (can you say “OCD”) to verify everything present, worked out for an hour in the ship’s gym, had breakfast in Windjammer (great Mexican scrambled eggs) and we were docked alongside pier in Cozumel. Had 2 one-tank dives scheduled with Aqua Safari through ship. Don’t even waste your time trying to make separate arrangements; just go through cruise ship. Walked to end of pier and saw sign for “Scuba” by the fountain in front of Duty-Free shop. After filling out the obligatory paperwork (PADI= Paperwork And Diving In-between), we were put in a taxi for 10 minute drive up the coast to the dive shop. It was interesting to note that I felt perfectly safe at all times in Cozumel and Costa Maya despite going into some pretty off-the-beaten path areas. The only thing the locals were interested in was separating the “turistas” from their dollars. Textbook example of capitalism in action. There were only two divers (myself and a diver with Houston Sheriffs Dept) on the trip. We had an underwater videographer (Angel) and a dive master (Jose) plus the boat captain. It was a fast boat and time to dive site is just a few minutes. This was my first boat dive with backwards roll off sides and was somewhat concerned. It proved to be a non-event and quickly was enjoying the experience of diving in and out of the Playancar Caves. The fish looked like they had neon signs embedded in their skin. We saw a sea tortoise, moray eel, big fat barrel looking fish, and thousands of reef fish. This was a drift dive so the current does all the work. Second dive was at San Francisco Reef and it was equally good. I could have dived here all day and was sad that we were done by noon. This was my second time diving Cozumel and I love it. The Aqua Safari guys were great too and our tips reflected it. Incidentally they have 120 liter tanks available (compared to the standard 84 liter) if you know to ask. Since I suck air like a jet engine, this would have given me more bottom time. Bought the diving DVD from Angel and it proved to be really well done.

I had promised my wife that I’d help her locate some fake Gucci, YSL, Prada, Versace, and Louis Vitton purses to give to her friends as Christmasmas presents. Unfortunately, she didn’t remember the store where she’d bought them (“it had a glass window”). We grabbed a taxi at the stand in front of pier, and tried to explain what we were seeking. Seems “replicas” is the most recognizable Spanish word for “knock-offs”. After several hours of driving to every hole-in-the-wall shop in Cozumel, we finally gave up and asked the taxi driver to drop us at the main shopping area by the Carnival pier. There is a small church in the center of the pedestrian-only mall, and if you head inland about two blocks past the church, you’ll find the area where the “replicas” are sold. Expect to pay $30-55 each depending on the number you buy, and the purse’s relative current popularity.

Day Four:
We were scheduled for 7AM – 2:30 PM in Costa Maya so it was a short day. I had arranged two dives through cruise line with Dream Time Divers. The taxi ride to their establishment was worth the price of the dive. Costa Maya was pure Third World about 5 years before it goes up tenfold in price and the big hotels arrive. Very primitive past the cruise pier area. Had about 9 divers on this cruise and the boat captain mentioned that everyone had cancelled the previous day because of the storm. Should have picked up on this information. The boat ride through the small opening in the reef was typically exciting where boat engine is straining against the incoming surf and pitching up into the air. We focused on readying our equipment and didn’t pay much attention to the heaving until we arrived at the first dive site (Jamaradas) and captain shut off the engines. Then it occurred to everyone they had to get out of the boat and into some pretty big waves. It turned into a comedy of errors and was 30 minutes from my entry into water until group was finally assembled and ready to go down (lost masks, broken hoses, panic, broken purge valve, etc.). Large groups definitely aren’t better and staying together in the strong current and big waves was a challenge. Descent was pretty sloppy and took a while to reassemble the group. Then our dive master headed off against the very strong current which is a poor idea for your average tourist diver. Visibility at 80 feet was poor (maybe 10 feet) with lots of sediment in the current. I’d never felt surges before and wondered how they differed from a strong current. Figured it out quickly when I was suddenly transported 15 feet down and sideways. One guy got separated and headed off on his independent scuba tour when the dive master suddenly veered left and descended into a deep channel. There was no question the other divers needed marker lights under these conditions. We resurfaced and went back to shore for mandatory surface interval. Dive master (who was Italian) spent long time screaming at the diver who had become separated. Think the brochure promises bottled water and sodas on board. Forget it as it doesn’t happen. Also bring a spare mask, extra O-rings, strobe or marker light, etc as this scuba shop and boat operator not likely to have extras. Second dive at Punta Tam had even worse visibility than the first. Several divers elected to stay on the boat or quit early. My most memorable experience was the safety stop as there was no reference line, float, or boat visible for visual reference. Surrounded by nothing but bubbles and sediment below a pounding surf was an interesting experience in controlling depth. Thankfully no one had brought along young children. Passed some off-road dune buggies in our small taxi on the way back to pier. It looked so sad. There were 20-30 two-person dune buggies traveling in tight formation between a lead and trail pickup truck from the rental agency. Several 5 year olds were driving as the speed clearly never exceeded their age. I feel all Americans have the inalienable right to kill themselves while hurtling through jungle over trails they’ve never seen before behind the wheel of an airborne motorcycle, ATV or dune buggy. Made a mental note to never take the dune buggy excursion, but it might be perfect for families that enjoy the Tea Cup ride at Disneyland. If you want more excitement, try the “open throttle” wave runner ride excursion in Labadee, Haiti. The captain announced during the evening meal that we’d be passing Cozumel on our way back to Galveston around 8:30 PM. We went up on deck at the appointed time and watched the lights of Cozumel slip by in the distance. The shows and headliners were all very good. Was very disappointed to miss the “Quest” adult game show. If you have never been to one, then you simply must go. We arrived about 10 minutes before starting time and there was not even standing room in the Top Hat lounge. Went to bed around midnight.

Day Five:
This was scheduled to be a sea day on the transit back to Galveston. My wife woke me around 7:30 AM staring out the window and commenting on a small two-person run about she saw. Did a quick computation and realized we should be near the center of the Gulf of Mexico. Within a few minutes we had counted 5 small fishing boats. This made no sense as they simply do not have the range. Went up to breakfast and overheard that a young female dining room attendant had contracted appendicitis and the captain had turned the ship around and headed back to Cozumel during the night and had dropped her off. Later learned she was medically evacuated by plane to Houston for surgery. Was most impressed that RCCL would do this given the obvious costs in fuel, extra day at sea, life flight, etc.

Day Six:
Here’s a new one … Day Six on a 5-day cruise. We were scheduled to get in to Galveston at 4 PM. Just an hour before ship normally departs. RCCL had generously offered to pay up to $100pp rebooking charges on airlines for passengers who had not made air arrangements through them, plus another $100pp for overnight hotel costs if they had missed their flights. Since we had allowed an extra day in Galveston at the end of cruise, it had minimal impact on us. The departure was a real mess. We had to clear out of the staterooms 2.5 hrs before arrival in Galveston. Everyone had colored tags and a scheduled departure time, but there was no one enforcing it and arrival turned into a typical zoo of 1800 people all trying to get off the ship at one time (and a third had their luggage). It caused mass gridlock and we spent another hour moving 30 feet towards the gangplank. It was 6 PM when we finally got through US Customs and to front of cruise terminal.

Cruises can be a real bargain in cost compared to all-inclusive land vacations to similar destinations. There is also the convenience of unpacking once for the entire vacation while your “hotel” does the traveling. Another pleasant difference is that the ship’s room attendants quietly and unobtrusively make your room when you go to breakfast or otherwise are absent for a few minutes. Not once did I have the unpleasant pounding on the door from “Room Service, It’s 9 AM and we gotta make your room now” that seems a staple of hotel stays on land. All in all, my only regret was that I’d have preferred a 7-day cruise instead of a 5-day cruise.

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