Cruise Village marketing manager, Jess Clayton recently returned from a fantastic Stay & Cruise holiday in the USA and Caribbean! Read her trip blog below!
Day 1 – Manchester to Orlando
After a very pleasant flight with Virgin Atlantic from Manchester, I arrived at Orlando International, bags in hand ready to live the American dream!
I’ve never driven in the States before, and never even driven an automatic car but I knew that I would have a better experience in Orlando if I had a car at my disposal… and what a car!! For what was a difference of about £10 a day (compared to an SUV) I was driving around in a drop-top Ford Mustang. And, yes… two suitcases is a squeeze in the boot of the Mustang, but somehow we made them fit!
The drive from the airport to International Drive takes a mere 20 minutes, and the tolls on the way there were cash, so all good – if you’re planning on driving then do visit a Walgreens (other shops are available!) and pick up a SunPass Mini for $5. It’ll take a few minutes to set up your account online and add some credit, and then stick it in the windscreen and you’re set to go for the rest of your time without having to worry over whether you have change for tolls (some don’t even take cash!).
We were staying at the Stay SkySuites on Canada Avenue, just around the corner from I Drive. Practically on your doorstep are a good selection of restaurants, shops and the world’s biggest McDonalds (we managed to refrain )!
Day 2 – Celebration, Florida
Having already visited some of the theme parks in Orlando on a previous visit, we were after a different Floridian experience this time around. Following a recommendation from a friend at Experience Kissimmee we headed to a town called Celebration (about 20min drive from I Drive), for a day of bike hire. This is an absolutely charming town, full of traditional shops, eateries and boutique/craft shopping. We opted for a couple of trikes (they just looked more fun!) and headed off on the boardwalk trail – it’s about 7 miles and takes you through gorgeous conservation areas and neighbourhoods (think Wisteria Lane from Desperate Housewives, or even the Truman Show… the houses are beautiful!!). There’s some incredible wildlife to be discovered on the route – we saw several alligators, bald eagles, hawks, egrets, and small lizards. We picked up the most incredible sandwiches from a place in town to take on our ride – I can thoroughly recommend “Sweet Escape” – and sat by a gorgeous lake about half way around, watching for alligators to pop their heads up, or even attempt to catch a squirrel!
Celebration is a planned community, designed on Disney’s idea of an ideal American town, and in my opinion well worth a visit – especially if you’re looking for something completely different to a hectic day at a theme park.
Day 3 – Swimming with Manatees, Crystal River
So excited for this day to come around! We were picked up from a convenient meeting point for our Florida Adventure Tour which included swimming with manatees at Crystal River, a visit to Homosassa State Park and an airboat ride. This is a full on day out! Breakfast and lunch are provided (both delicious!), and our tour guide even kept everyone entertained during the drive each way with a movie and a Florida quiz.
Our boat captain took us to a more isolated area where he’d seen manatees that morning, but unfortunately they’d decided to make a move, so that meant that we then headed (like everyone else) to the busier area of Crystal River. The water is super clear (hence the name!) and surroundings are gorgeous. Provided with snorkel masks and pipe we headed into the water on noodles – to help with buoyancy for passive observation – and we were lucky enough to see a whole family of manatees resting, rising to the surface for air and swimming underneath us. We even got to watch a manatee calf nursing!
I’d recommend hiring the wetsuits at $10 for this activity.
After lunch we started the journey back towards Orlando, stopping at Homosassa Springs State Park. Entry is included in the tour price. Here we saw an incredible range of birds of prey, wading birds, the Florida Panther, more manatees, a hippo and, of course, alligators.
Our final stop ended the day on an adrenaline high – Wild Bill’s Airboat Tour. If you’re hoping to go home with a souvenir that’s alligator themed, then this is the place to pick one up! The only thing I wanted for myself here, was a photo holding a baby alligator, which you can do for just $3. On your walk down to the airboat keep an eye for an enclosure that holds an absolutely enormous rescue alligator – I think they said it weighed around a tonne!
The airboat ride itself was epic! Super fast and exciting, with plenty of time slowed down and stopped to observe the wildlife – which included some recently hatched baby alligators, turtles (just hanging out next to a fully grown alligator!) and so many different kinds of birds it was impossible to count them all.
All in all a superb value day out, that I’d be happy to recommend again and again.
Day 4 – Day of not so much rest
So we had nothing planned today… and we ended up returning to Celebration, because we enjoyed it (and the sandwiches) so much. It’s the perfect place to do a 10km jog (as you do on holiday!), as it’s picturesque, shady and flat. We finished off the run by standing in the town’s fountain… very refreshing and super cold!!
Day 5 – Kennedy Space Center
Whether you believe we landed on the moon or not, I thoroughly recommend you make a visit to the Kennedy Space Center. If your jaw doesn’t drop the moment shuttle Atlantis is revealed, or you’re not left momentarily speechless by the sheer size of the colossal Saturn V rocket, then I suspect you may not have a soul! Honestly one of the most incredible places I’ve ever visited, and it also pays poignant homage to those that have paid dearly for our quest to reach for the stars.
We had “Lunch with an Astronaut” included, and this is well worth the extra. Not only do you get a catered buffet lunch, but you get to meet a real-life, bona fide astronaut, ask them questions and hear fascinating stories. We met Brian Duffy, who has flown a staggering 4 shuttle missions and therefore has plenty of tales to tell.
Our tickets also included the Explore tour, which is a coach journey around the campus – taking you to the launch pad viewing sites, past the insanely huge crawler-transporters and to the VAB (vehicle assembly building). This place is seriously mind-blowing!
Keep an eye out for the huge Bald Eagle nest (it’s about 8-feet wide!) in a dead tree at the side of the road, it’s been in constant use since the 1970s.
Day 6 – On the road
Our cruise started in Miami, so we drove the Mustang from Orlando to Downtown Miami (with the top down obviously!), – this takes about 4 hours with a comfort break or two – left it at the Intercontinental hotel and wandered around the marina for a wee while. Turns out it was spring break whilst we were there, so it was definitely lively to say the least!
We actually stayed in a property in the Wynwood district, and if you’re looking for something else to see and do in Miami other than South Beach and the Art Deco district then this area is amazing. It really is the art district, and Wynwood Walls is a fantastic place to visit and wander around by day or evening. There’s some very trendy bars and great restaurants in the area, which in my opinion are better quality than, and don’t charge you quite as much as, some places closer to the beach.
Day 7 – Miami
No trip to Miami is complete without sunbathing on South Beach, so we took an Uber and hired a couple of beds for a few hours. It’s worth a long stroll up and down, just to take in the colourful lifeguard towers. We were lucky enough to have a large group of pelicans feeding near the shore where we were sunbathing.
In the evening we had a very special experience planned… Stand Up Paddleboarding at Sunset. The company we went with are non-profit (Rise Up Adventures – and this is something we booked ourselves privately for about $40pp), using the money to provide enriching experiences to women that have experienced trauma. We were a small group of 3, all of whom had never been SUP before. After a quick briefing and instruction we were all stood up (I might have fallen off a few times…) on our boards enjoying the magical skyline of Miami at sunset. They even take photos for you and supply them to you as part of the package. An amazing experience that I’m sure to remember for a very long time!
Day 8 – Embarkation day!
The day we’ve all been waiting for arrived!! Today we made our way to the Port of Miami, and Royal Caribbean’s fabulous new Terminal A – Crown of Miami – to board Allure of the Seas. This was my partner’s first time onboard a cruise ship, and to say that she had been terrified about it since I booked the trip is an understatement! I think the amazement of all the features I started pointing out onboard – the huge double climbing walls, zip line, FlowRider, Central Park – was distracting enough for her to focus on the wonder of the ship rather than the terror of the open ocean!
I’d made sure that I pre-booked us seats for the show at the Aqua Theatre for the first night, as this was something that I personally was super excited about seeing as I’ve never seen it myself on previous visits aboard Oasis class ships. The show was called Oceanaria, and boy was this a treat!!! High-diving and aerial acrobatics blended seamlessly with comedic and dramatic moments to create a show that literally had me on the edge of my seat, gasping with astonishment!
- If you haven’t got a drinks package already then make sure you purchase it as soon as you get onboard to take full advantage of any offers. We had the deluxe package included and it really was worth it! No bar bill at the end!
- Pre-pay your gratuities. The staff do an absolutely amazing job, and always have a smile waiting for you. The waiters (especially in the casino) know your name normally by the end of the first night, and know your drink well enough that you don’t even need to say more than “another one please”!
- Voom Wi-Fi… is it worth it? Want to stay in touch with anyone, or make people on social media jealous? It’s brilliant! For a ship with over 6000 guests onboard it was surprisingly fast, allowing for perfect video calling and quick Netflix downloading!
Day 9 – Nassau, Bahamas
Woke up to a stunning sunrise over Nassau, followed by the most gorgeous weather. I’ve been to Nassau previously, visited the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island, and enjoyed a day at their Aquaventure, so I was looking forward to a chilled out day exploring the port itself. There are plenty of shops to browse here, no matter whether you’re after jewellery, clothing, rum or pirate memorabilia! We were heading to the nearby free beach, Junkanoo, which is probably about 15-20min walk from the ship if you don’t look in any shops. Our walk took us via Senor Frogs, where we stayed for a couple of cheeky cocktails and the entertainment of spring breakers starting their day of merriment. The beach itself is clean, has a couple of drinks shacks, provides a fantastic panoramic view of the cruise ships in port and the lighthouse, plus the water is super clear.
On reflection, I probably shouldn’t have paid to have my hair braided at Nassau port… the look didn’t really go with my outfit for formal night…
Day 10 – Day at sea
Time to test out our skills on FlowRider!!! Turns out we don’t have any…
I managed to stay standing for a few seconds on both attempts – quite a feat I think! It’s worth waiting for your turn on the surfing simulator, not just for your chance to ride the waves, but to watch some of the people that have obviously tried it out on numerous occasions before – twists, turns, splashes and spectacular wipeouts ahoy!
We took our mild whiplash off to the adult only area – the Solarium – and relaxed in one of the hot tubs and the uber comfy chairs for the afternoon – after all we’re here to relax!
Make sure you take a look at the line-up for the comedy shows before you travel and pre-book seats for the headliners show – absolutely hilarious. There is an orderly queue outside waiting for spare seats, so make sure you’re not late, these are shows in high demand!
Day 11 – Cozumel, Mexico
We pre-booked “Climb the Coba Pyramid and Cenote Swim” for today, so an earlyish departure, and a packed lunch is provided. This was our compromise, as we both would have liked to visit Tulum or Chichen Itza for their Mayan pyramids, however those are longer journeys than we would like for a day trip. As it is, Coba is a fascinating site and the pyramid certainly makes for an exhilarating climb. You really do need to be fit for this one… there were people literally crawling up the steps and using the rope for assistance. The view from the top is worth it though… treetops and peaks of pyramids in all directions.
The time you get to swim at the cenote completely depends on how long your group takes to return from the pyramid… ours was a little slow so we had about 15-20 minutes to change and get inside the cenote. In fairness it’s not that big that you would actually need longer, and it has enough wow factor that you’ll leave with a smile on your face regardless.
After returning to the ship we decided we’d join in with the casual Caribbean atmosphere onboard, partied on the promenade and gambled probably a little too hard in the casino.
Day 12 – Roatan, Honduras
Wow! The view from our balcony in the morning was something else! Roatan’s lush and hilly landscape was a welcome break from the flat beaches and palm trees of our previous destinations. Our pre-booked excursion, “Lobsters and Iguanas”, left late morning and took us to the idyllic Big & Little French Cays. Decent snorkelling equipment was provided, and we took a short boat ride out to the coral reef. Upon entering the water we immediately found lobsters hiding under large rocks, and witnessed a dazzling array of tropical fish. The Meso-American reef may be the second largest reef in the world, but it has also fallen foul of the bleaching that we see across the rest of the world’s reefs – there are still some vibrant colours to be seen here, but you do have to pause a while in the water to really take an area in. You really won’t see much if you just keep swimming – take the time to smell the roses as it were!
Post-snorkelling there’s time to chill out and enjoy the activities on offer in the Cay – this is definitely a place that I could see myself spending at least a week at, let alone a couple of hours.
The group took the boat back to Roatan, where we disembark at the iguana park. They are literally everywhere!! And they’re massive!!
Day 13 – Costa Maya, Mexico
We didn’t book an excursion here, but we did have a walk around the port. Costa Maya is a port built specifically for cruise tourism, so don’t expect a taste of Mexico here unless you’re getting out and about on a tequila factory visit or Mayan pyramids. The shops in port are varied though, so you can have a chilled out morning just browsing if you wish. There are dolphin experiences in the port itself, so that’s fun to watch even if aren’t participating yourself. You can also purchase a “Port Pass” giving you use of the pools and bars in port, plus an aviary set above the shopping area. We also witnessed an impressive aerial display – re-enacting a traditional Mayan ceremony.
This is the ideal port to enjoy a quiet ship at! Have your pick of sunbeds, avoid any crowds at Windjammer and enjoy minimal queues on activities!
If you enjoy the gym/running track then take advantage here… we did!
Day 14 – Day at sea
Really was the very last opportunity to top up the tan (or freckles in my case!) today. Get up early and secure yourself a good sunbathing spot.
Day 15 – Miami to Orlando to Manchester
We opted to carry our own luggage off, as we needed to leave earlyish – reason being our flight home was from Orlando! We got an Uber to Miami airport and picked up another hire car (standard mid-size SUV this time) and got straight on the road for Orlando.
Our early start meant we could spend a couple of hours chilling out before our flight, and picking up any last minute bargains at the outlets of Orlando.
Is my partner still afraid of cruising? Take a look at the picture above… she looks pretty relaxed by the final day onboard! Might have something to do with fantastic food, a great drinks package and world-class entertainment onboard Allure of the Seas! There really is so much to do on board (you’ll be hard-pushed to do everything you want even in a week!), and the solarium is plenty big enough if you want to be away from the general hubbub of the main pools area, but still catch some decent rays. Embarkation and debarkation at any of the ports was smooth and seamless, regardless of the number of passengers.
Would I go back to Florida? Absolutely! It’s not all about the theme parks (although they’re fun too!)… Florida has plenty to offer everyone, and I’m definitely not done exploring, especially if I’ve got a nice set of wheels!