A trip into uncharted waters

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

Travel is something I feel I know pretty well. I’ve traveled a good portion of the United States and spent four years in Europe.

I’ve flown, I’ve made leisurely and forced-march style driving trips, and I’ve even suffered through bus trips.

What I’d never done was take a cruise. All that changed Feb. 9 when I boarded the Carnival Freedom in Galveston for a four-day trip to Cozumel and back. I’ll admit, a cruise never made it very high up my list of travel wishes, so I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy it. We went with eight family members and it was a good way to get us all in the same place for a really good price – because, well, it’s February – to spend time together.

The adventure was enjoyable and we made lots of memories, but I’m not sure cruising has moved up much on my list of future travel plans. For those of you who have been on a cruise, much of what’s to come is obvious at this point, but for others – like me only two weeks ago – it is as unknown as what’s resting at the bottom of that ocean as you head for Mexico.

For me, the pluses were simple. The food was great, the sleep was amazing and the experience of being at sea and just watching the ocean as you travel was unforgettable.

The problem is the negatives are basically deal breakers for me and things I travel to actually escape, not get mired in.

The ships are big, but you can only make a ship so big and when it needs to accommodate nearly 4,000 passengers and 2,000 crew members, quarters get cramped pretty quickly.

The main decks – complete with pools, water slide, basketball, shuffleboard, mini golf and other games – looked like a scene straight out of “Spring Break Attack”. The movie doesn’t exist, but you see it in your head, I know. I have not been prepared for or interested in the level of dedication it takes to survive the Spring Break scene in decades and the music and crowds made it hard to cope with.

The crowds don’t end when you leave the pool, though, because those people are with you all the time. Kind of nowhere else to go. The shops are crowded, the bars are crowded and the restaurants – even with more than a dozen great choices – are crowded.

So if you eat at traditional mealtime, you will find a crowd in front of all 16 elevators. If you opt for a buffet-style meal, the lines will be long there as well.

Some people love games. They love trivia, karaoke, life-size board games and dance offs. I’m not that person. I didn’t have a deep desire to learn to make towel animals or beat 40 other screaming people at the 80s version of “Name that Tune”.

I don’t say that to take away from those activities. Those are cruise activities, they always have been and always will be. I knew that going in. It’s just not how I tend to have fun.

So my options for entertainment on the ship were limited and when you just wanted a quiet place to relax, those were few and far between.

If you are not eating or playing a game, you are usually buying something. If you want to enjoy a few drinks each day on your cruise, buy the all-inclusive drink package. Then beware of the casino, jewelry shop, perfume shop, candy shop and gift shop. The sales are always going on and when you mix 50 percent off duty-free watches with the crowds I mentioned before, you have to be strong or stand back.

I know, now you are thinking, “this guy hated his cruise,” but that’s not true.

I just believe the cautionary tale above for people like me is important. I’d argue that nearly anyone who takes a cruise will enjoy the experience, if only for that one trip.

The novelty of the dining experience is almost enough to justify a cruise in itself.

Imagine sitting down in a nice, sprawling dining room, perhaps with a table at a window like we enjoyed, and enjoying some of the best table service you will ever have. Add to that a daily menu that includes a half-dozen appetizer options, six to 10 entree options and just as many sides, and you can see how enjoyable the experience could be.

But wait, there’s more. Can’t decide between the shrimp cocktail and crab cake for an appetizer? Just tell them you want one of each. Was one really good? Have another. That vegetable lasagna sounds really good, but you’ve never had striped bass cooked that way, so you get bold and order both. The waiter simply smiles and says, “of course, Mike.”

Then, when that “settles” – though I’m pretty sure nothing settles during a cruise – they slide a dessert menu in your hand with all the same rules.

While the dining room provided the best food experience, the ship had 24-hour pizza and ice cream, free room service from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., and for most of the day great hamburgers, tacos, stir fry, sandwiches, Italian and a breakfast, lunch and dinner buffet.

Marissa, my 11-year old, took her dining skills to a whole new level as her and I spent much of the four days planning out the next opportunity to eat.

Cruises really are a culture of food. I knew this going in, but like many things, the stories you hear do nothing to prepare you for the reality when you get there.

The first thing we did on the ship was have lunch, and the last thing we did on the ship was eat breakfast. A fitting beginning and end to the experience. Sure, I had moments of shame about just how much food I tried, but it never took long to remember that my time was limited and the menu seemed to be anything but.

Another highlight was the live music. I saw five different acts plus a DJ making the way through the ship, setting up at different locations and playing hour-long sets. They were all very talented and fun to listen to.

Each night included a show – again, not my favorite thing to do – and while I didn’t find it Broadway worthy, two of the three we watched were quite good.

A trip to any cruise destination generally includes time for a trip onshore for exploring or shopping. I’m not so sure about some ports, but a trip to Cozumel needs to include an excursion so you aren’t trapped in “Spring Break Attacks 2” once you get off the ship.

We made the rounds through the shopping area at the pier, which is conveniently walled-off from the rest of town to create just the right atmosphere and image. But if you’ve browsed tourist shops in Mexico, then I couldn’t tell you anything you might find you are not already aware of.

Our excursion included a glass-bottom boat tour to the reef, a trip to a cacao factory and a Tequilaria.

For those of us who do not dive, the boat tour was a fun opportunity to see what all you hard-working scuba folks enjoy without all the fuss.

At the cacao factory, visitors watch how the original cocoa paste was made centuries ago and have a taste. I found it quite delicious and was disappointed that they didn’t actually sell that version in the gift shop.

The Tequilaria was not a stop I was looking forward to – past experiences and whatnot – but I learned a valuable lesson. The Tequila we buy is not the Tequila you can buy in Mexico. The tour guide and chief salesman of this very pricey version started his story by saying in Mexico they “sip” Tequila, and I chuckled. We usually throw Tequila back and hope for the best, so I had low expectations.

After sampling about eight different varieties, though, I agreed and was amazed that there was actually Tequila out there that I would actually want to drink.

The last really impressive thing to note about taking a cruise is the accommodations and service. When you cruise, you spend a good amount of time simply marveling at the size of the ship, the beauty of the inside and how well it is maintained. It really is like someone tossed a casino from the Vegas Strip into the ocean and it happened to float.

The cabin was small but very nice with plenty of room. The bed was super comfortable and I learned that not only do I not get seasick, the rolling of the ship as I sleep is one of the most incredible experiences ever.

The staff, from the room porter to waiters to the cruise director himself, were incredible and “on” 24 hours a day. The ship had one crew member for every two people on board, and you felt like there was always someone right there to take care of you.

If you haven’t been on a cruise you should try one. You may never want to go again, but there’s no doubt you will find plenty to enjoy.

Cruising fulfills every promise it makes, and any disappointment you might find in the experience is more about the style of travel you enjoy than the trip itself being disappointing.

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