Sunday, June 01, 2008
Cruise to Cozumel
Those of you who follow me on Twitter, know that I just returned from a trip to Costa Rica. So where are my Costa Rica blog posts, you may wonder? They are coming (and it will take more than one to cover all the cool stuff), but before I do so, I still owe you a post on my cruise to Mexico (Cozumel).
I had never been on a cruise before. I am not sure why exactly. It has long been one of those things I always wanted to do, but never quite enough so to actually do it. And besides, I was never quite sure whether I would be too bored by a cruise or not. I had sailed on big ships before, but they were mainly large ferries to Greece (check out this post for instance) or Corsica, and after 24 hours on the ship, I had always been ready to get off. But we finally did it with my parents last month: We took a cruise from the port of Galveston (which of course is very convenient if you live in Houston) down to Cozumel (Mexico). My expectations were that there was going to be some partying on the ship, some semi-decent food, and as the climax, a very nice day spent in the Mexican Caribbean.
To my surprise, getting on the cruise was relatively painless, and also quite inexpensive, all things considered (especially since you need relatively little money on board). We just drove down to Galveston on a Thursday morning, parked the car, and got on the ship. Boarding can take a little while, but due to the fact that my parents as well as I have an Austrian passport, we all boarded at the "foreign visitors" line, which wasn't a line at all. We just walked up, showed them our tickets and paperwork, and a few minutes later we were on the ship, while the line for US citizens would have probably taken about an hour to get through. (And I really do not queue up very well at all... so that worked out good).
The ship itself was quite impressive. We sailed on the Carnival Ecstasy, which holds 2,052 passengers and is 855 feet (260 meters) long. Quite impressive, although not entirely as impressive as I expected, I must admit. For instance, one of the ships I was on going to Greece, the F/B El Venizelos is 575 feet (175 meters) long, which is quite a bit shorter, but holds 2,500 passengers and 1,100 cars! In terms of number of decks and such, the two ships are about equal. Nevertheless, the Ecstasy was very impressive in terms of the amenities and the quality of things provided. I was really surprised at how nice our cabin was. Plus, they always came up with funky little towel animals I liked. Here is an example:
(In fact, we even bought a book that tells how to make 100 different towel animals. I have only mastered the snail so far, and the result looks a bit vulgar, so I couldn't possibly show a photo of it here...)
The cruise from Galveston to Cozumel and back is considered a 5-day cruise, but it really isn't. The ship leaves port Thursday afternoon, and gets back Monday morning. So you really have 4 nights or 3 days of vacation. The first and last day seems to be mostly wasted on cruises. One of the things that I pretty much knew ahead of time, but it still took me by surprise anyway, is how much food one consumes on a cruise. (The average passenger gains 8lbs, I am told). And what was even more surprising was the quality. I expected it to be decent for mass produced food, but it actually turned out to be very very good. So I ate a little more than I feared :-).
The other thing that struck me pretty much as soon as we boarded was that I had never seen such a collection of fat, deformed, and genuinely ugly people in one spot. It was quite amazing. Not that I am claiming to be an Adonis, but boy, this was something. On the other hand, it makes you worry a little less about sucking in your stomach, which is probably a good thing. But if you are stuck on a boat with 2,000 people for an entire cruise, and not once do you see a girl where you think "oh, she is kinda cute", something is just plain wrong! Well, anyway, this is what it was. Not a good single hangout, I would say.
Anyway: Our first day at see was quite uneventful. I wasn't bored at all I have to say. Quite the contrary. I had been so busy and stressed the few weeks before the cruise, I was just happy to find a quite spot on deck (I found one aft) and read a book, and enjoy not having Internet access for a change:
I spent a little bit of time by the pool, but frankly, if a pool is what you want, go to a hotel. The ship's pool was nothing to write home about. And in terms of a "funship party on deck", I didn't see much of that either. (Unless the meant the men's hairy chest competition...I kid you not!) But that was fine with me in that case. We spent the day eating and relaxing, and eating some more. We also saw a nice show that evening (comedian) and lost a bit of money at the casino. Here is a photo from one of our dinners:
I also noticed that one of the things the ship was big on was "getting pampered at the spa". That is all fine and good, except "pampered" ("pempern") means something entirely different in German. Totally different. "Come up to our private rooms, and we will have you pampered in no time", they said. Uhm, OK. Or "pamper yourself for only $95" said another advertisement. Gee, that would be the first time I had to pay for that! I didn't take them up on that offer though. Seems to me I got "pampered" at the casino more than I wanted...
So I found the day at sea enjoyable overall, but what I was really looking forward to was the day in Cozumel. I hadn't been to Cozumel before, but I had been to the Riviera Maya, which is the mainland the island of Cozumel is just off of. And I have very fond memories of that trip. However, I also realized that with 2,000 people trying to get off at a relatively small port, it probably wasn't that great an idea to do what everyone else did. So we decided to ask our waitress (whom we had become friendly with) where she would go for a land excursion, thinking that might be our best bet to not go where all the tours and catamarans go. She made a recommendation, and we got off the ship (agonizingly slowly, I might add!) grabbed a taxi, and of we went... to what ended up being exactly the same beach as where all the other tourists from the ship went! What a disappointment! This must have been the single worst Caribbean beach ever! Tons of people, a boring beach, no snorkeling or Caribbean atmosphere. I was devastated. Here's a photo from that beach (which really doesn't do it justice):
Also, I found the whole process of getting off the ship in Cozumel to be an exercise in frustration. It takes a long time (did I mention I don't like to wait?) and then you are herded through a series of shops that having nothing whatsoever to do with Mexico. You will see a Starbucks and a Subway restaurant. A Burger King and a McDonalds. Why would I want to see any of that?!? I could have had that cheaper at home! It always pisses me off when I see something like that. Especially Subway seems to have a habit of opening up restaurants at the oddest places, such as archeological sites. Why would I want to see a Subway restaurant when I came to see Mayan ruins?!?
We had from about 9am to 4pm to explore Mexico. However, what you have to take in account is that it takes forever to get off the ship and out through the terminal, Realistically, you won't make it to anywhere before 11am or later. You also have to be back on the ship at least 30 minutes before it sails. And considering how long it takes to get on, you have to leave wherever you are no later than 2:30pm or so. So that leaves you with just over 3 hours max to do anything. And guess what: There just isn't that much you can do in 3 hours. In hindsight, I might have chosen to just stay on board and relax a little more. Even considering other options now, there just wasn't enough time to get away from all the commotion.
Here is our ship (with a second ship from Carnival) at the dock in Cozumel:
Here we are, just before we get in the 1+ hour line to get back onto the ship (did I mention I hate to wait...? Oh, I did, didn't I?):
Once back on the ship, the good life continued however. We enjoyed a nice sunset over Cancun, before we ate more food and enjoyed another show:
The next day was spent at sea again, as we steamed back to Galveston. More food, but we even mixed in a littler exercise. It was another enjoyable day, even though it started raining in the afternoon. So much so in fact, that they had to close the deck off. But that was OK. We just ate a little more food. This was also the night of the magnificent buffet, which included a number of nice sculptures, such as this ice dragon, which I took a picture of, since my hockey team is called the "Ice Dragons":
So how did I like the cruise all in all, and would I do another one? Well, I liked it OK. It was a very nice and relaxing long weekend. And it was convenient for us and not overly expensive. I wouldn't call it exactly a vacation, because as a vacation it would have sucked. But as a nice thing to do on the weekend, I would probably do it again in a little while. You just can't think of it as a way to get to Mexico, but instead, I think of it as a nice alternative to spending the weekend in our yard by the pool. Not a better way to spend the weekend, mind you, but I can't sit by the pool every weekend :-).
Everything we did on board the ship was actually a little better than I expected. The food was awesome (they def. had the best lobster I ever ate, and I have eaten lobster at some expensive places...) and the crew was friendly. Our waitress was awesome (Izabella). The land excursion was a huge disappointment, and I felt especially bad for my parents who had never been to Mexico before.
I would however consider another cruise (and am in fact planning one right now) to places you couldn't otherwise get to very easily. To Mexico, I would fly the next time around, but Alaska and Antarctica seem to be great places to cruise to. I also would like to cross the Atlantic as well as the Pacific on a ship one day. In all these cases, traveling by ship serves a very specific purpose, but just traveling to a common vacation destination on a cruise ship is not that high on my list at this point.
BTW: We had a very inexpensive cabin way down in a low deck in the middle of the ship. This turned out to be a great choice. It was inexpensive and being low meant you feel little movement. I do not get seasick, but this is a good thing to know. Also, being in the middle of the ship (slightly forward, perhaps) means you are away from the noisy anchor chain yet you can't hear the engines much either. So this is the cabin I would go for again for this type of cruise. You do not need a window, because there isn't much to see, so that isn't worth the higher price. You don't need a bigger room, because you don't spend much time in your cabin anyway. The only thing that I would consider spending extra money on is a cabin with a nice balcony, especially on a cruise where you actually see land.
We arrived back in Galveston Monday morning. You had the option to grab all your own bags and walk off the boat early, or you could have your bags carried off for you, and leave based on a specific schedule. We carried our own bags, and that is what I would recommend. If you get the bags carried off for you, you still end up picking them up just before immigration anyway. There is little benefit to it, and you will only be further back in line. And the line was long! 2,000 people (the equivalent of 10 average flights) trying to make it through immigration with 5 customs officers. Yikes! It took forever! It was poorly organized and overall a mess. Way too much hassle for a trip that felt like you never left Houston, really. But we made it through, and were back home around noon on Monday.
Posted @ 6:07 PM by Egger, Markus (email@example.com)
Sunday, June 01, 2008
Things I must do before I die...
A lot of people talk about their imaginary list of things to do before they die. "Visit the Great Wall of China" is probably the most stereotypical item people put on it. And guess what, I have such an imaginary list too. And although I always thought I've had such a list, I couldn't really tell you what was on it, to be honest. Or how I'd go about many of those things for that matter.
So yesterday it occurred to me, that I should probably organize myself a bit, and create an actual list. Most people would probably write it down on a piece of paper or perhaps create a simple computer file. I am a software developer however, so I decided to create a database suitable for the task, accessible as a web application. This way, I could easily add items to the list no matter where I am at. I could add items, indicated whether I had already done them or not, store additional information for each task as I do research into how to accomplish this, and so forth. So that is what I spent a few hours on yesterday. While I was at it, I created it in a way where multiple people could theoretically store their things they want to do in this database, and see who else wanted to do the same thing or had already done it, and what their experiences were. (Currently, only I can actually add items to the database, but I may make it available to others as well).
So now, all that's left to do is add the actual things I want to do. I spent a bit of time on this and the list is already huge. And I am sure there will be much much more to add. Man, I better get planning!
Here's the link to my list: http://www.markusegger.com/ThingsToDo.aspx
Oh, and yes, visiting the Great Wall of China is on my list...
Posted @ 4:28 PM by Egger, Markus (firstname.lastname@example.org)