A September 2001 trip
to Western Caribbean by vampirefan
Quote: Several years ago, when I was a travel agent, we took a cruise on Carnival’s Fascination. It was a seminar at sea, so it was a working cruise. Boy, that was the best work environment I have ever been in!
Carnival Cruise Lines are one of the most successful of all the cruise lines. In addition to Carnival, the company also owns Holland America; Cunard; Seabourne; COSTA; and Windstar, of the recent Princess. But the Carnival line remains my favorite, and as a travel agent, I send more clients on Carnival than any other. You can get more information and book a cruise at www.carnival.com 24/7.
The Fascination is one of Carnival’s older ships, which now cruises the Bahamas and Western Caribbean. It is 855 feet long, carries 2,052 passengers, and weighs 70,367 tons, which by many cruise ship standards, especially the Royal Caribbean Voyeur line, is small. The ship is still considered a mid-size ship and doesn’t seem small at all when you walk up to it. It is still is bigger than the Titanic, which only weighed in at about 50,000 tons.
On the ship, they offer a full-sized gym, three pools, a spa, two very elaborate dining rooms (the Sensation and the Imagination dining rooms), Seaview Bistro, a 24-hour pizzeria, several nightclubs, a casino, onboard duty-free shopping, first-run movies, and nightly Vegas-style and Broadway reviews.
For those bringing young ones, Carnival offers a terrific children’s program. From a travel professional’s perspective, I can tell you it is considered one of the best in the business. Their counselors are highly trained individuals. They often use college students who are studying child psychology or who are childhood education majors as interns. They have something going for the wee ones from sunup to sundown. It is included in the price of your cruise. I, for one, am not a fan of children, so I love how they handle their kids’ programs. These guys do such a super job of occupying the young ones that you never see them.
There are enough activities on this cruise to keep you going even on those dreaded days at sea. Every morning when you wake up you will find that a magical sea elf has left you a copy of the Carnival Capers. This nifty guide tells you about all the planned activities for the day, as well shopping deals, casino happenings, dining information, movie information, entertainment options, special events (like the Captain’s Cocktail Reception), and shore information on the next destination. Activities include a sail-away party; bingo; art auctions; singles’ mixers; and eat-more, weigh-less seminars (it usually doesn’t happen on a cruise, though). Or just simply relax at the pool with a daiquiri in hand. You can stay busy or do nothing at all. No matter what your choice, the Fascination is the perfect place to do it!
You can choose to take several tours with the cruise line. You can do island tours, trolley tours, and snorkel tours. Or you can simply go it at your own pace. Key West is a very tiny island (2 miles by 4 miles), making it very easy to walk around. There are a number of things to do here. You can visit the houses of James Audubon, Harry Truman, and Ernest Hemmingway. You can stop and take your picture at the southernmost point in the US. You can learn some history at Mel Fishers Maritime Museum. Try climbing the Key West Lighthouse. Or you can host a few at any of the numerous bars located on the island. While we were here, my friend Tammy and I visited the lighthouse and Hemmingway’s house. Our friends Guy and Scott rented a golf cart and rode around the island and stopped at a few bars. Bicycles are also available for rent.
There are a number of options for getting into town. You can simply walk since it isn’t very far, or you can take the trolley or rent a cab, as either option is not very expensive. Once you arrive in town, if you hang a right down Whitehead Street, you will run into the house of naturalist James Audubon, Former President Harry Truman’s little white house, the house of Ernest Hemmingway (all three are open to tours), the Key West Lighthouse, and if you keep going, the southernmost point marked by a very large buoy. You can take your picture and enjoy a lively breeze coming in off the water and enjoy the views of the Atlantic. Along the way, you will see some beautiful old houses. These houses are painted in bright and beautiful colors that remind me more of the houses in the Bahamas than the old homes of Charleston, South Carolina.
If you opt to go to the left, you will run into the Mallory Square area. Mallory Square is known as the place to watch those famous Key West sunsets. But during the day it is pretty cool, too. Here you will find the Key West Aquarium, the Shipwreck Historeum, and Mel Fishers. Mallory Square also offers plenty of shopping. Here you can find T-shirts, locally made crafts, books, tropical clothing, and more. For the cooks in the family, make sure to pick up some real key lime juice so you can make an authentic key lime pie or key lime cooler cookies when you return. Here you are closer to the restaurants and bars. Key West has more than its share of bars (which may be part of the reason why Key West is so haunted. After one to many, lots of people see all kinds of things!). And most people want to visit at least one just to say they have. So stop by Sloppy Joes or the Hogs Breath and down a few with the locals. The Hard Rock and Margarittaville are located nearby. Two of our tablemates said that Diva’s, located on Duval, offers a great drag show. And like the majority of gay bars, they do not discriminate. Anyone open-minded who likes fun is welcome. If all this sounds like too much, just hit the beach and enjoy the scenery.
Key West is also well known for its fishing and diving. If you are interested in these two pursuits, you will have to come back for a long visit some other time. Both require charters and the trips pretty much take up most of the day. The best diving is done at the Tortugas, which is about 70 miles west. The boat trip is about 3 to 4 hours round-trip, and then you stay several hours at the Tortugas. So unless you’re lucky enough to have a cruise that is here for a long visit, you will have to miss this. Needless to say, just a visit to the breathtaking Tortugas are out of the question, too. And the favorite activity of sunset-watching is out since most cruises leave in the afternoon. Do check with the cruise lines, though, since recently several lines have started offering longer stops here as part of their itineraries, especially in the winter months, when the days are shorter. But whatever you choose, Key West is a place that will stay with you long after you have returned home. For more information on Key West and things to do, simply go to or .
The keep’s quarters have been fully restored and recreated as it would have been when the light keepers served here. It has a complete house and verandah. Inside you will find nautical instruments, maps, photos, and lighthouse artifacts. Just inside the lighthouse gift shop you will find a fourth order Fresnel lens. French physicists Augustine Jean Fresnel invented the Fresnel lens. Today, newer lighthouses or lighthouses that need their lenses replaced have an automatic beacon. The Fresnel lenses are truly a work of art but are so cost prohibitive that most structures cannot afford them. One you leave the shop, you take a small path to either the light or the keeper’s quarters. The keeper’s quarters are quite lovely. The attention to detail here is magnificent. Everything has been lovely restored to as they would have been when the keepers and their families served here. If you love historical places, you will love this. I loved all of the lighthouse artifacts on display.
To some, the thought of climbing a lighthouse seems daunting. The first lighthouse I climbed was the Hunnting Island Lighthouse in South Carolina. It was 180 steps and quite a hike. Lighthouses aren’t exactly known for having lots of room to move about them. The steps are often very narrow, and you usually have to turn sideways for two people to pass. But when these were built, they were only built for one person to go up at a time. The designers of these building probably never imagined a day when dozens of happy visitors would be marching up and down the steps. Anyhoo, there are only 88 steps here to climb, so it is not a very strenuous climb. Once you reach the top, you walk out to a path that surrounds the lens. When you get here, you realize this is worth the climb. Talk about a view. Here you are offered some just breathtaking views. You can see all of Key West and are offered some stunning views of the ocean. If you are here and there are quite a few visitors also trying to enjoy the view, please be considerate of others. If you have the place to yourself, like we did, then stay and enjoy this beauty for awhile.
For more information on the lighthouse, go to and click on the lighthouse. You can also go to for information on all of the Florida lighthouses. Also check out . Photographers Bob and Sandra Shanklin have visited every lighthouse in the US. They have some wonderful books on lighthouses and have a terrific book featuring all of the Florida lighthouses. They are also very wonderful people. And finally, check out . This wonderful site has a compressive database of lighthouses. They also have a merchandise store featuring a variety of lighthouse merchandise. You can find out about joining the American Lighthouse Association, which helps preserve these wonderful structures. And you can find out about subscribing to the Lighthouse Digest. This wonderful monthly magazine is devoted entirely to lighthouses.
Marine architect and salvage wrecker Asa Taft built the beautiful Spanish colonial house in 1851. It was one of the first houses on the island to be fitted with indoor plumbing and an indoor fireplace. Hemmingway resided here, along with his second wife Pauline and their two sons Patrick and Gregory. Ernest lived here from 1928 until his divorce from Pauline in 1940. Pauline lived here until her death in 1951. It was rented out over the years until Papa’s death 10 years later in 1961. At that time, the estate sold the house to local businesswoman Bernice Dickson. She opened the museum to the public in 1964 and moved to the carriage house in the back. In 1986, it was designated a National Historic Landmark. The house still remains and is run by the Dickson family.
In the living room, you can see some of the furnishings Pauline purchased while she was living in Paris. She later shipped them to Key West when she and Papa took up residence. Her beautiful chandelier collection replaced all of the ceiling fans. In the dining room, you can see Pauline’s magnificent 18th-century Spanish walnut dining table. In the kitchen, you will see a lovely fireplace. The kitchen was modern for the times. She had a GE fridge installed in the home (not common or affordable at the time). Throughout the kitchen, you will notice many decorative Spanish and Portuguese tiles. In the master bedroom, marvel at the bed that uses an Old Spanish monastery gate as its headboard. The room originally occupied by his sons now serves as homage to Hemmingway himself. Here you will find memorabilia and photos from his travels. There are first editions of his books. You can also see a photo of Papa in his WW1 Red Cross uniform. In the former nursemaid’s room, you can see a splendid mantle made of Italian marble and more photos. You can take a walk outside around porch for some lovely views. There is a terrific view of the Key West lighthouse from here.
You can then wonder around the grounds of this lovely home. Running all over the place you will find about 50 cats that are descendents of the cats that lived here when Hemmingway did. Many of these cats are polydactyl cats, meaning they have extra toes! There is a beautiful weeping fig tree that was planted when the house was constructed. You can visit Papa’s studio, which was originally a carriage house. The second floor was his studio. You can see it just as it was when Papa was here. You can see his typewriter, his Cuban cigar-maker’s chair, and his books and mementos. The bottom floor contains a gift shop and restrooms. You can check out his swimming pool. His house was the first house to have a pool. Make sure to check out Papa’s unusual drinking fountain for his cats. The fountain is an old Spanish olive jar. The trough came from his good friend Joe Russell’s bar, Sloppy Joes. It was originally one of the men’s room urinals! But Pauline added the decorative tile to disguise this.
There may be something else still around from Papa’s days - Papa himself! It has been reported that the spirit of Papa still roams the house. Though he later resided in Cuba and then Idaho, it was this house that was his favorite. So his spirit is probably just hanging around and enjoying all the visitors who come to see this beautiful structure. There is an optional tour included in your admission. The tour last about 30 minutes and is a great tour to take. You can just wait on the front porch to join the next one. Or you can just roam the house at your leisure. This is a must-see for anyone coming to Key West. You can go to for more info.
Cozumel first started opening its doors to the rest of the world in 1924, when they built the Hotel Louvre. But it would take until the 1950s before it became a popular tourist spot. It wasn’t until 1961, though, that the island really took off. When Jacques Cousteau visited here, he said that it was the most beautiful island and marveled at the pristine waters, offering an array of beautiful fish and high visibility for scuba divers. The rest, as we say, is history.
Today Cozumel is a major diving and cave-diving center. Millions of people come here to traverse the beautiful underwater world that awaits. Cozumel is home to the second-largest reef barrier, with Australia being the first. Just about every dive magazine lists an annual best-dive issue, and you can bet Cozumel is on every one of them. This port is also on just about every Western Caribbean itinerary. In most cases, you have a very long time in Cozumel. Most ships arrive early in the day and do not depart until the wee hours of the morning, giving you plenty of time to take in a shore excursion and still get back to enjoy this beautiful city. It is the largest port in Mexico, the third-largest in the Caribbean, and fifth in the world. More than 2,500,000 people discover the beauty that is Cozumel each year.
There are plenty of shore excursions offered here, including island tours, shopping tours, tours of the ancient city of Tulum, party boats, jeep adventures, and snorkeling and diving tours. You do have to be certified to dive here. There are no diving tours here that will allow you to dive a few feet in the water with an instructor. Not in the mood for a tour? No problem--just take a taxi into town and enjoy the hospitality. Taxis line up at the pier, and the fare into town is about $5. Or you can rent a jeep fairly inexpensively (you can rent them right at the pier) and head to the beach. If you don’t want to plunk down almost $80 to see Tulum, you can rent a jeep and explore another site, San Gervacio, on your own. It is a lesser-known ancient site that is still being discovered. Warning: if you want to do this, TAKE PLENTY OF BUG REPELLENT! Since it is still being excavated, it is not as well-tended as Tulum, and you can bet you will get a bug bite or two if you don’t use repellent.
After you return from your shore excursion, take the time to go into town and mingle with the people. Cozumel is a shopper’s paradise. As soon as you come off the ship, there is a duty-free shop for visitors. Here you will find liquor, perfume, clothes, jewelry, and locally made crafts. I picked up some beautiful handmade blankets for $4 each! On into town, you will find more jewelry shops (silver is a particularly good buy), liquor shops, and clothing shops. Take the time to try one of the local restaurants. The Hard Rock has a branch here, as well as local favorites Senor Frogs and Carlos and Charlie’s. Local cuisine from some incredible chefs abounds here. No habla espanol? No problemo; amazingly, everyone here speaks English! U.S. dollars are very accepted here. But for very large purchases I would suggest using a credit card in case of any problems. When you get your bill, though, it will show up in pesos. Currently, the exchange rate is about 10 pesos to each U.S. dollar. My hubby about had a cow when he got our VISA bill. He wandered why in the world I spent $500 on jewelry. I actually only spent $50.
Today Cozumel has been built up as a major resort area. When you pull into port, the pier looks like any other pier in the U.S. To me, it looked no different than Myrtle Beach. Along the pier, you will find TGI Friday’s, Subway, Pizza Hut, and McDonald’s, just to name a few! The sands of the beaches are pristine, and the shore is dotted with major resorts and hotels. It looks like and is paradise. Granted, all of the tourism dollars have helped this country and cities like Cozumel tremendously. Housing, education, and health have all benefited from the influx of tourism dollars.
But beneath the glitz and glamour, if you go just outside the city, you will have culture shock. Away from the big resort areas, you will see that this is still a third-world country. It is heartbreaking, to say the least. But the people of Cozumel are very generous and warm and gladly welcome you into their beautiful city. When you are traveling, please always respect the culture and the city where you are a guest. Kindness is greatly repaid here. Oh, and one more thing... what about drinking the water? Well, doctors think Montezuma’s revenge actually comes from a combination of things. They think traveling though several times zones, being in a new environment, and the hustle and bustle of travel is actually what contributes to traveler’s diarrhea. One other thing that has benefitted from tourism dollars is the water system. All major resorts, hotels, and restaurants have water filters, and the water is perfectly safe to drink. If you are eating at a small local restaurant, you may want bottled water or soda. Just remember: no ice (which is, of course, made from H2O!). For more information on this beautiful island, please check out , , or .
Once you board the bus, you drive about another 10 minutes and are then at Tulum. There is someone who stays on the bus in case you make a big purchase in the gift store, so you can leave it on the bus and your item will be safe. You will then walk through a small shopping plaza. Here you have two options. You can walk the 800 feet to the entrance or you can take a tram for $1.50. Due to my asthma, we took the tram. It was a very nice ride up and beats the heck out of walking. Your guide will meet you at the front entrance, so just wait before you go on in. Your guide will take you in as a group. He or she will give you an overview of Tulum and a history lesson. They spend about 1 hour telling you about this wonderful city. Then you are given several hours to tour at your leisure. You will be told what time to be back at the bus, so make sure someone in your party has a watch. They do have photographers around who will take a nice souvenir photo for you.
Back at the shopping village, you will find several shops featuring some absolutely beautiful handmade crafts, everything from handmade masks, figurines, and blankets to T-shirts, collector’s spoons, and postcards. There is a Subway here in case you get hungry. They also have a convenience store stocked with sodas, snacks, beer, and souvenirs. Your tram ticket is good for the length of your stay. So if all the trampling around the ruins gets you hungry or you need a potty break, you can hop back on the tram and return. Do try to leave in time to stop by the shops and see some of their amazing craftsmanship. Again, everyone does speak English here and your U.S. dollars are gladly accepted.
Of the two most prominent ruins in Mexico, Chichen Itza (located near Cancun) may be more well known and photographed, but Tulum offers a something else. This city was built atop a cliff overlooking the beautiful ocean. You can climb down and enjoy the sand and take a dip into the cool turquoise waters. From here you are offered a breathtaking view of this amazing site.
Today, you cannot longer climb the structures. But the structures are not roped off (unless work is being done), so you can go up to the structure to experience the power of this place. The most incredible sight here is the castle. Dramatically built on the edge of the cliff overlooking the ocean, it inspires wonder in all those who see it. There is a massive wall on both sides and then a series of steps up the temple. This was once the main site for worship. Located throughout the ruins, you can still see incredibly preserved houses, walls, and buildings. Many times, descendants of the Mayans are on hand to talk about this city or to perform. While we were here, several men preformed a pole dance. I have had clients lucky enough to be here and get to talk to these wonderful people about their ancestors. The Institute does not pay these people, so if you can, please tip these wonderful people for their service. Throughout the ruins you will also see a large concentration of lizards. These little guys are harmless and will not bother you. They do seem to like to pose for pictures, though! You are welcome to take pictures, but there is a small fee for video cameras. You can pay this to your guide, who will get a pass for you.
When you are finished, you will be taken back to the city, and from here you board the ferry back to Cozumel. If you had your picture taken, this is where you can pick it up. The ride takes about 30 minutes, and it really is beautiful. Those prone to motion sickness may want to take something before they head out. This is a must for the whole family. When you are here you go back in time for just a few brief hours. This place is incredible, and what a way to give your child a history lesson. Once you are here, you will understand why this place is considered magical.
One word about shore excursions, especially for cruise passengers: Make sure you book this excursion either with the cruise line directly or with a service such as Ship to Shore. Your travel agent will provide you information on shore excursions. With Carnival, you sign up for shore excursions when you board the ship. With others like Royal Caribbean, NCL, or Princess, you can order your excursions before you leave. You will be given a time to be back at the ship, and make sure you are there. That ship will sail with or without you. However, if Carnival receives a call that 200 of their passengers are on a bus that has a flat tire, they will wait. If you booked it with Joe’s bus tour and they have a flat, the ship will not wait for two passengers. If you book your shore excursion with the cruise line or companies such as Ship to Shore, the cruise line either waits or gets you to your next port. If you are in a resort area, then you don’t have to worry about a curfew. Most of the major resorts and hotels offer excursions to Tulum. If they don’t, they can direct you to a reputable travel agency to make the arrangements. It is a good idea to go with a group and to go with a reputable company. Also, check with your cruise line or resort about going to Play del Carmen. Play del Carmen is a lovely city and worth visiting. Some cruise lines are starting to add a complete day stop here or offer this place alone as an excursion. Resorts and hotels will help arrange to get you here for a visit. You can find out about Tulum at , , or .
The place is loud, rowdy, and lots of fun. If you like quiet and refinement, then you will probably not take a liking to this place. But if you love fun, then come on in and join the party. There is a disco located on one side of the restaurant, so sometimes you can barely hear someone talking to you. They have a HUGE bar at the back. There are lovely cocktail waitresses serving shooters. This is not for the easily embarrassed. They pour the shooter into your mouth and razz you a bit. Our friend Guy who was with us was single and loved it. You may be sitting there and all of a sudden everyone gets up on their chair and does the chicken dance! If they do, join in. Thinking this might be for the under 35 crowd? Think again. I have had clients into their 80’s go and enjoy the fun. Only requirement here? Just a love of good food and fun. Again, everyone here speaks English. Credit cards and US dollars are accepted. They have a souvenir shop on the premises. Their shirts are just as coveted as those Hard Rock shirts (they also have a location here). You can also take home a great souvenir picture of your dining party. The picture is $25 but comes with a very large nice wood frame.
Their food is also incredible. To make their American customers happy, you can get such American goodies such as pasta, burgers, chicken, and ribs. But why? You can get that at home. Most everyone has had some taste of Mexican food, whether it was from a Mexican restaurant at home or Taco Bell. But the local flavors here are made to be savored. I got an enchilada plate. Out came three HUGE enchiladas with red sauce (you get your choice of red or green), beans, and rice. What a party for your taste buds. I still drool thinking about the food. It’s certainly not Taco Bell. And the portions… oh my. My food was served on a HUGE platter. I swear at least two people could have eaten off this plate. And the price is perfect. It was only about $7. They have an extensive bar list. If you happen to have any room left in your tummy, they have a mouthwatering dessert menu. They had a mango crepe dessert that looked heavenly. The table next to us had one, and it looked just divine. Also reminder the water here is safe, so if you prefer H2O as your refreshment, you are okay. You can make advanced reservations online at the group’s web site at or check out the unofficial web site at .
Carnival is the largest cruise line in the world. As an agent, I have sent more passengers on Carnival than any other line. Carnival is for everyone. Singles, couples, families, and groups are all sailing Carnival. There is a great deal of acceptance on the Carnival ships. I have had many gay couples travel Carnival and feel comfortable while on the ship. From grandparents to little tykes, everyone is sure to find Carnival the fun ship line.
Maybe you have heard Carnival is the party ship? Well, people do tend to have a good time on the ships. But it is not the Girls Gone Wild, spring break-type atmosphere that people think. Carnival was the first cruise line to raise their booking age to 21. Now all passengers under 21 must have a passenger over 21 in their room with them. There are only two exceptions to that rule and that is a married couple under 21 (you must have proof of marriage) or kids traveling with their parents. Maybe you heard about a case of food poisoning on a ship or a ship that broke down? Yes, that happened. But guess what? It happens to all the other cruise lines, too. Cruise ships are much like cars, and they do on occasion break down, and food poising can happen even at the most exclusive of places. Believe me, I know as an industry professional, it is only the most popular ships that get the headlines. After all, the Titanic was the most luxurious ship afloat in 1914 and look what happened to her!
A Carnival cruise is the perfect vacation for the whole family. Even though you may have read in some travel magazines to wait for last-minute deals, don’t, especially if you are a family. They only have a limited amount of rooms for more than two passengers, and those book very quickly. Your best deals are found in the fall months, when most families cannot travel. Cruises in the summer months and on holidays must be booked well in advanced. Alaska cruises, which only sail from May to September, tend to book up about a year in advanced. Anywhere from 9 to 12 months ahead of time is a good timeframe to book. You will only have to pay a deposit if you book in advance, and then your final payment comes in about 8 weeks prior to sailing.
Jut about everything is included in the price of your cruise: three sit-down meals a day, a range of buffets, 24-hour pizza, 24-hour room service, use of the gym facilities, nightly shows, children’s programs, entertainment, and use of other facilities. What is not included? Alcoholic beverages, sodas (though Carnival does have a soda card where you purchase a card and have all the soda you want. You purchase them at the bar on the ship), spa and beauty salon treatments, photographs, or shopping. What about tips? Yes, you are encouraged to tip about $10 per day, which covers your assistant waiter, waiter, and room attendant. Tip service should also be given in the bars, beauty salon, and spas. You can tip your dining host for exceptional service. These people work extra hard to make sure you have a wonderful vacation, so please be very kind to them. Some cruise lines add tips to your bill, so make sure to ask. There are some cruise lines that do not allow tipping. But I can assure you that these are the more expensive cruise lines.
Once aboard the ship, it is a cashless society. Your room key also serves as your onboard account. When you purchase a drink from the bar or postcards from the shop, you just hand them your key. At the end of the trip, you will receive a bill and it is automatically applied to your credit or debit card. Prefer using cash? That is fine, too. You just simply put money on your account, and once you have gone through that, then you just go down and put money on your card again. There are ATM machines onboard in case you want money for shore. The fees are extremely high, so wait until you are in port to use an ATM. The only place cash is used is at the casino. But many ships today also use your onboard account for this, too.
Once you have mulled over the cruise lines and the itinerary, then go ahead and book the vacation of your dream. You can book directly with the cruise line. Go to to book with them. You can also book with your locate travel agency or through the many travel websites, such as Expedia or Tavelocity. Places such as AAA or Sam’s club offer these services to their customers. Can you save ton using an agency versus the cruise line? To be honest, not really. Carnival especially has now implemented a one-price structure, meaning you get the same price whether you book though them or an agent. But no matter whom you book through, just do it. Come on, what are you waiting for?
Charlotte, North Carolina