My biggest worry about taking a cruise was that I would feel ripped off. When I travel, I like to spend a significant amount of time in a location. This gives me the opportunity to engage with locals, to familiarize myself with the area, and to get a feel for what life is like. Not to mention I want to try ALL of the foods!
And in a way, I was right. I ended up feeling a bit let down with the ~10 hours we got to spend in both Jamaica and Grand Cayman. I’m sure if I’d been to these places before, it wouldn’t have mattered as much, but since this was my first time setting foot on either island, I would have liked to spend at least a few days exploring and getting a feel for their respective lifestyles. However, it is what it is, and I knew that going into it, so let’s take a look at what I did get to experience in each of these locations…
Because we stayed in the Fort Lauderdale area for a few days before AND after our cruise, we actually did get to see quite a bit of it.
Sawgrass Grand Hotel
Our first hotel (pre-cruise) was the Sawgrass Grand. This one was in the Sunrise neighborhood, so not exactly super close to the cruise port, but still within walking distance of a few shopping complexes, restaurants, and banks. The rooms were spacious and updated, with floor to ceiling windows for lots of natural light.
Even more stunning was the lobby, bar, restaurant, and lounge area. Everything is shiny and new, and elegantly decorated. The whole place had a great atmosphere. And in addition to the indoor space, there was plenty of outdoor dining space, complete with dining tables, lounge chairs, palm trees galore, and a perfectly clean swimming pool. This was all visible from inside thanks to two walls entirely full of windows.
The food from the Sawgrass restaurant was delicious, although breakfast was not included in the rate. We were able to take our meals from the dining room to enjoy breakfast outdoors on the patio, which was a lovely way to start the day. All in all, the staff were accommodating, the facilities were clean and updated, and the rates were fair. I would definitely recommend the Sawgrass Grand for a pre- or post-cruise stay, as long as you don’t mind paying a bit more for the taxi to the cruise port.
Fort Lauderdale Beach
On the day our cruise was to sail out, we had until around 1pm to hang around Fort Lauderdale. All we wanted was the beach. In a light-bulb moment, we had our taxi driver pull up to the baggage drop-off for our cruise, and asked one of the handlers if we could drop our bags off early so that we didn’t have to drag them around all morning. He replied that we were the smartest people he’d seen all day (it was early…), and that they’d be happy to do that. So, luggage-free, we hopped right back into our taxi and left for the beach.
Fort Lauderdale Beach is seven miles of soft sand and warm water, mirrored across the street by rows of shops, bars, and restaurants. We passed the time strolling through the sand, happy to be far away from the cold Canadian winter. The shops are mostly souvenir shops, but you can still find a few nice things, and even a good deal or two if you really look. After enjoying the beach, grabbing a bite to eat, and doing a bit of shopping, it was time to head back to the port. By this time, we’d managed to make our way to the far south end of the beach anyway, so we figured we’d be able to walk to the port rather than get another taxi. It ended up being about a 30 minute walk, which wasn’t too bad and there was some great scenery, but by the end we were so over the heat and our sandals, so I think I’d recommend sticking with the 8 minute taxi ride 😉
Everglades National Park is a 1.5 million acre wetlands preserve in Florida. The park is made up of coastal mangroves, sawgrass marshes, and pine flatwoods, and is home to hundreds of animal species, including the endagered leatherback turtle, Florida panther, and West Indian manatee. Oh, and alligators. Lots of alligators.
There are several companies offering a glimpse into these wetlands, usually by means of airboat tour. We sadly didn’t have enough time for a full tour, but we did visit Everglades Holiday Park, checking out the scenery and some of the critters hanging around.
Rodeway Inn & Suites
Our second hotel (post-cruise) was not quite as nice as the first. We stayed at the Rodeway Inn & Suites. It was more of a ‘motel’, with a few rowdy guests, a strong need for some renovations, and a bit of a sketchy vibe. But, we survived the night. And to be fair, the hotel was in a great location, very close to the cruise port. They offered free shuttle service to & from the port. Their staff were friendly and considerate. The grounds were covered in lush and vibrant gardens. Breakfast was included. There was a bar / restaurant on site, as well as a very convenient gift shop with lots of snack options (frozen chocolate covered banana anyone?). AND we got the room at a great rate. So really, who can complain, right…?
Las Olas Boulevard
For our last day in Florida, we thought we should probably get some serious shopping in. Pre-cruise shopping at the beach was mediocre, and there wasn’t a lot of shopping to be done on the ship, so this seemed like a good time to find some treasures. We’d met a couple people on the cruise who had raved about Las Olas Boulevard, so we decided this would be the place. However, we hadn’t been told that this was the Beverly Hills of Fort Lauderdale. While the shops were amazing, the prices were extraordinary (even at the “thrift” shops!), and with our poor Canadian dollar’s exchange rate, they were even more absurd. We did manage to find a couple things though, and the walk along the Boulevard was gorgeous, so it still made for a good day.
Plus, we stopped for lunch at a place called Fork & Balls, which as you can guess, is a meatball specialty restaurant. This is seriously my new favorite restaurant. Even as only a part-time meat eater, there was lots to choose from, including classic beef, turkey, veggie, and even quinoa & kale balls! I did go with the buffalo chicken balls though, and am still in love. Of course there are also salads, entrees, and sandwiches, but the balls have it. Please go here, and please try the buffalo chicken balls!
Grand Cayman was our first port of call. We were supposed to dock on the West coast of the island, but due to choppy waters, had to continue on to the South coast and tender in. This means instead of walking off the ship onto a dock, we had to pack onto tenders (a smaller boat used to transport people or supplies to and from shore) in groups, and be shuttled to shore. This process took so much longer than docking would have. I consider myself a very patient person, even in the most trying times. But, when you’re eager to get to a tropical island that you only have a few hours to enjoy, that patience will certainly be tested.
The tender process isn’t uncommon with cruise ships. And perhaps because this was Plan B (Plan A being docking on the West coast), the process didn’t go as smoothly as it would have otherwise. But I do know I was not a fan of it.
Welcome to Hell
Yep! I’ve been to Hell. And back. And I’m not referring to the tender process…
On the Northern tip of the West arm of Grand Cayman, there is a tiny little town called Hell. It is so called because of the patch of jagged black limestone formations, that look hellish any time of day, and apparently have a reddish glow at sunrise and sunset. The town consists mainly of a post office where you can send postcards and mail from Hell, and a small gift shop. I had heard that they will also stamp your passport for you, so I asked at the Post Office, and she quickly dismissed my request, as if she had no idea what I was talking about. Typical postal worker. Not willing to give up, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask at the gift shop, and sure enough, she pulls out a stamp! “Why the hell not?!” she says, “I’m happy as hell to help!”, and “Have a hell of a good day!”. Too perfect – that lady made our day.
Seven Mile Beach
From Hell, we returned to the coast and strolled along the famous Seven Mile Beach, a long crescent of coral-sand on the west coast of Grand Cayman. This beach is the epitome of tropical beaches – straight from a postcard. It really doesn’t get any better than this.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and our day in Grand Cayman was no exception. We hailed a taxi, made our way back to the Southern port we’d entered at, and joined the lineup for our tender back to the ship.
Our second stop was the vibrant Caribbean island of Jamaica. The docking process in Ocho Rios went much more smoothly, and we were able to disembark at our leisure and less like herded sheep. This also meant we could return to the ship at any time during the day, which allowed us to do some shopping, then drop our wares off in our room and get changed for the beach. Such an improvement.
There are two main shopping complexes in the little town of Ocho Rios, one on each of its main roadways (Main Street and DaCosta Drive). Much of this shopping is duty-free merchandise and souvenir-type items. There are also several bars and open-air eateries. And yes, you can fully expect to be offered some ganja. The people are friendly, but vendors can be pushy, so you should be able to stand your ground while not getting offended or aggravated. We’re all just trying to make a living, right?
After a bit more shopping, we dropped off our bags, grabbed lunch on the ship, then went to spend the rest of the day reading, swimming, and relaxing on the beach. This beach was not as quiet or peaceful as Seven Mile, because it was home to Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. That was fine, but the loud music made it a bit hard to read (for me anyway), and the beach was much smaller and more crowded. However, we lucked out and found two loungers to claim for the afternoon, and had a fantastic time doing absolutely nothing.
Just as we made it back to the ship for the end of the day, the rain clouds crept over the mountaintops and let loose. We watched from the dry comfort of the ship’s deck as we pushed away from Jamaica and started the journey home.
You may have noticed that we did not participate in any of the excursions offered by the cruise line. This was intentional. As it was our first cruise, and only five days long, we didn’t want to be married to any solid plans. We intended to be schedule-free, and we succeeded in doing just that. I will admit that the obvious benefit to excursions would be getting to see more than just the souvenir shops and tourist beaches, but for cruise #1 this was a good plan. It gave us an introduction to some new places, and enough of a taste to decide if we’d want to go back for a longer stay (in both cases, yes).
If you’d like to know what I thought of the cruise ship itself, check out this post!
And if you have any comments, questions, or your own tales of cruise ship destinations, please feel free to share below!