Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Day 5: Grand Cayman on the Carnival Breeze

DISCLAIMER: I probably should’ve added this to the first blog in the series about the cruise, but this is as good a place as any. I receive NO compensation from Carnival or any of the dive or tour operators mentioned in this blog in any way, including money, discounts, favors or anything else. This blog strictly represents my own opinion, and should be construed only as such.

On weekends, vacation, and other time off, I’m not a morning person. My coworkers are always amused when the inevitable “What are y’all gonna do over the long weekend?” question comes up. My stock answer is “Sleep in, and anything after that is just icing on the cake.” Of course Cindy and I will get up early when we need to catch a flight somewhere, or hit the road to get somewhere we want to go when necessary, but we’ll try to squeeze in as much sack time as possible.

So here we are, in the middle of what’s shaping up to be another fun cruise, sleeping peacefully in our cool, dark cabin. We got to bed a little late last night after watching the Love & Marriage Show. Our little travel alarm clock starts bleating its wakeup noise, at 6 a.m. 6! Gahhh! I’m hitting the snooze button one time. That’s another 10 minutes of that glorious sleep. Which felt like all of 10 seconds.

OK, OK, I know, we really need to get up and get going. We need to be at Guest Services (deck 3, forward) with our dive gear, ready to go, by 7. That means getting dressed, a quick breakfast and slathered with sunscreen. We have priority tendering and will be lead to the tenders (deck 0) as soon as the first one arrives. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why we had everything ready to go last night (well except for the sunscreen slathering).

We made it! Guest Services just before 7 and not only were we escorted to Deck 0 shortly thereafter, but we actually got to take the elevator! Yay! Carrying all that dive gear, even in a backpack style bag, is a bit of a pain going down all those stairs. On to the first tender and soon we are chugging towards the pier. Unlike tendering in Belize, which can take 15 – 20 minutes, this trip is only 5 minutes from ship to shore.

I prefer using Cayman Turtle Divers (CTD) as our dive op in Cayman. We first used them in 2013 and while I’m sure the other dive operators on Cayman are just as good, my first choice will always be with CTD. They are very professional, very friendly, and just fun to hang out with. I think that with the exception of one person, the staff there are either Texans or Brits. See what I mean? With so many fellow Texans on staff, how could we not use CTD? They, like most of the dive operators in the Caribbean, offer a “valet” dive trip, in that they’ll handle your dive bag, assemble your gear, change tanks between dives and disassemble your gear at the end of the trip and repack your dive bag. For those used to handling your own gear, it takes a little getting used to. Tip: If any of my fellow Texans book with CTD, you will forever be their friend if you take them a few bottles of any of the Whataburger sauces available at HEB. Our meeting point, as usual, was the Dairy Queen just a short walk from the tender pier.

Wait, whaaat? Dairy Queen? Yes, seriously! There’s a Dairy Queen on Grand Cayman! I’ve always thought of them more as a regional operation, and not an international operation. Of course I’m not surprised there are the major fast food chains on Cayman like Popeye’s, Burger King, etc. I was just surprised that DQ found a home there.

We waited about half an hour for the CTD van to pick us up. Again, better to be safe than sorry, so we made sure to get to the DQ with plenty of time to spare. Bradley picked us up and helped us load our gear into the van. On the way to meet the dive boat, he asked us where we were from, and when I told him, he mentioned his mother and father lived in a nearby town. He was very familiar with where we live and the surrounding area. Small world!

We picked up one more diver, Taylor from NC, at one of the hotels and met the dive boat Wahoo and Ollie our divemaster nearby. Once everyone’s gear was loaded, Bradley jumped in and would be the boat captain for this trip, leaving Ollie to be our guide on both dives. Now I realize that compared to other divers, Cindy and I may not have the most experience in the Caribbean, but I think we have enough to have at least a little credibility. We’ve been diving from Cozumel to Grand Cayman to St. Thomas, with many places in between. CTD has always given one of the best pre-departure briefings of any dive operators in the Caribbean in my humble opinion. All dive ops give some form of pre-departure briefing, but CTD covers everything you would possibly need to know in a professional, yet efficient manner.

Wahoo dive boat
photo courtesy of Cayman Turtle Divers

Warning: I’m about to get into some heavy dive terminology for a bit while I’m describing the dives we made. I want to make this interesting for both my diving and non-diving readers, so if there’s something that didn’t quite make sense, please let me know in the comments section below and I’ll be happy to explain in more detail. I made most of the diving terms into hyperlinks for the nondivers who’d like more details on what I’m referring to.

Ever since the USS Kittiwake was purposely sunk to create an artificial reef, I knew I wanted to dive it. I love wreck diving, or at least the “casual” wreck diving that I do. I’m no John Chatterton, nor do I ever expect to reach his level of technical expertise in wreck dives. My wreck dives are limited to the purpose sunk ships like the Kittiwake or the C-53 in Cozumel, or even the USS Oriskany out of Pensacola. Mr. Chatterton, if you are reading this, the first round is on me if you ever make it to the Houston/Galveston area.

We were actually booked to dive the Kittiwake today, and when Ollie mentioned that Taylor also wanted to experience a wall dive this was just extra icing on an already heavily frosted, scrumptious dive cake! And this was just our first of two dives! Life is definitely good in Cayman today. It was a short boat ride from where we were picked up to the dive site. We tied up at one of the mooring buoys for the Kittiwake, which also happened to be close to the “Sand Chute” where we’d begin our dive. The plan was to dive the Sand Chute first, so Taylor could experience a wall dive and then swim over to the Kittiwake and explore it.

OK, divers, you know what comes next, right? That’s right, it’s the pre-dive briefing. The pre-dive brief is specific to each dive site, and this is another reason I like CTD. Their pre-dive briefs are very detailed and leave nothing to guesswork. Ollie, you could write a textbook on how to give a quality pre-dive brief. Good on you, mate!

For diving in Cayman, we chose to dive with air. Normally in the Caribbean (or, well, anywhere, actually) I prefer diving with nitrox instead of air. Besides the obvious benefits of extending my bottom time, I feel so much less fatigued after diving than I do with air. In Cayman, though, nitrox is a bit more expensive than other locations. We’ll be using nitrox in Cozumel the next day, so it won’t hurt to dive air today. Our dive computers can easily switch between air and nitrox, so that’s not an issue either.

Geared up and ready to go, we did a back roll entry and started our descent. Not only was this Barbara’s first back roll entry, it was also her very first time diving in salt water and in truly open water. She did great, by the way! Ollie led us over to the Sand Chute and guided us around the reef. This site is aptly named, as there is an actual sandy chute between two reefs that is quite steep. Grand Cayman is one of my favorite diving spots in the Caribbean due to the always good visibility (“viz”) and abundant marine life.

We explored Sand Chute for a bit then swam over to the Kittiwake. Ollie pointed out a medium sized sting ray resting right under the ship’s propeller. Back on the dive boat, he said it was “medium sized,” but it still looked pretty darned big to me. We explored almost every deck of the Kittiwake, including the recompression chamber and diving bell. There was a large (but relatively small) Goliath grouper hanging out in what used to be the ship’s shower facility. I’m guessing this grouper weighed in around 150 – 200 pounds. I say “relatively small” because we’ve seen Goliath groupers MUCH bigger than this.

As yet another bonus to diving this cool wreck, we found a geocache (GC4BAC0) and signed the log, so that makes the second scuba cache team Lefty Writer has found. My wife and I have a geocaching account under the name Lefty Writer (sound familiar?) and when not diving (and sometimes when diving) we’ll be geocaching in the ports. The C-53 has a geocache as well. Ollie even mentioned a geocache on the Kittiwake, something that pleasantly surprised me. I had already known about this prior to the cruise, but it was nice to hear this in a dive briefing.

I'm heading for the cache!

A glance at my dive computer showed that I was nearing my NDL, or “no decompression limit.” Recreational scuba diving teaches no decompression diving, which essentially means that one does not have to make a “decompression stop” while ascending to the surface. This is not to be confused with a “safety stop,” though. Now the argument over whether or not a safety stop is recommended versus mandatory is wayyyy beyond the scope of this blog. Suffice it to say that on pretty much any dive in the Caribbean, we do this safety stop. We’ll stop ascending 15 – 20 feet below the surface for 3 - 5 minutes to allow excess nitrogen that’s dissolved in our blood to safely and slowly come out of the blood and be exhaled.

Most new divers will be limited by their breathing gas supply (air or nitrox) more than their NDL. As a diver gains more experience, they become more efficient in their gas consumption and are able to make longer dives on that same tank. It was with mixed feelings that my dive buddy (Cindy) and I ended our dives, and did our safety stop with almost a third of our gas remaining in the tank. Had we been diving nitrox, we could’ve stayed down a little longer. It felt good, though, knowing that we’ve reached the point in our diving that our gas consumption is efficient enough that we are able to make nice, long dives. I climbed back on the dive boat with almost 1100 pounds (a full tank is usually around 3000 psi) in my tank. I’m just glad I didn’t run into Mike Scott on that dive. Mike sounds like a cool guy, but trouble tends to find him.

Now that was a fun dive! We were on our surface interval for the next 45 minutes or so, and we took the time to rehydrate with bottled water and eat a snack. Naturally the conversation centered on such things as “Hey, did you see that big grouper? It looked like it was admiring itself in the mirror.” We talked about what all we had seen on the dive, how warm (and clear) the water was, and so on. This, to me, is an often overlooked joy of diving. Spending your surface interval on a dive boat….in the Caribbean….with your friends…..talking about a shared passion. A cool breeze is drying your hair and as you look out over the sparkling water, sipping from a cold bottle of water, you wonder how life could be any better.

What was that? Who’s that Mike Scott guy I was writing about? Oh, him. He’s a character in a series of adventure books by author Eric Douglas. Two of his books featuring this character are set in Grand Cayman. I’m on book # 6 by Mr. Douglas and have enjoyed every one of them so far. (Go ahead and add him to the list on my disclaimer, unless Mr. Douglas would like to send me an advance copy of his latest Mike Scott novel when it’s done….just sayin’.) I happened to be reading book # 5 while on the cruise and honestly wanted to give his work a shout out.

While Taylor, Barbara, Keith, Cindy and I were telling our war stories, Ollie and Bradley were changing our tanks and moving the Wahoo to our next dive location. They were discussing the next place to dive, looking for optimal conditions, viz and sea life. Meghan Trainor says it’s All About The Bass, but here in Grand Cayman, it’s all about the viz, ‘bout the viz (no better). Ollie wanted to take us to his favorite spot, I think he said it was “Bear Paw,” but in his estimation, the viz was a paltry 60 feet, and he wasn’t going to let us dive in such “poor viz.” They have standards, you know. When I tried to explain to him that we were used to diving in SIX foot viz, he just shrugged and said diving with Cayman Turtle Divers meant great viz. We settled on Tarpon Alley and got ready for our second dive.

Ollie briefed us that we might see a couple of different reef sharks. He had tagged two of them, and described them to us. We did see one of them, “Spot.” Spot swam near us, and circled from a distance. Rather than being frightened by the proximity of a shark, as I would’ve been in my pre-diving days, it was a joy to see. I managed to “suffer” through the “adequate” 75’ viz throughout the dive. The more I dive in Grand Cayman, the more it’s becoming my favorite dive area. I still want to dive in Little Cayman, and Cayman Brac in the future.

All too soon, it was time to finish up our second dive, do our safety stop and get on the boat for the ride back to the marina. While Ollie piloted the boat, Bradley was busy disassembling our gear and storing it in our dive bags. We were letting the breeze (the wind, not the ship) dry us off while I peeled off my dive skin and put on dry clothes. Heather was waiting at the marina to take us back to the dive shop to settle our bills. JT was on the pier as well, so it was nice to visit with him briefly. JT is the manager of CTD, and was our DM the first time Cindy and I ever dove with them.

photo courtesy of Cayman Turtle Divers

I wasn’t done spending money yet, as I found this really sharp CTD cap and Cindy found a pretty CTD shirt in pink. Heather, by the way, happened to be our divemaster another time we dove with them. It really was like diving with friends from our dive club instead of being just customers with a dive operator. Dives completed and money paid, Heather drove us back to DQ so we could catch a tender back to the Breeze (the ship, not the wind). We had a fantastic day, and as much as I wanted to dive some more, we had to get back. That’s OK, though; we have more diving in Cozumel tomorrow.

Taken from the tender pier

We dropped our dive gear off in the cabin and went up to Lido for another late lunch. I think a Blue Iguana beef burrito would do nicely as a post-dive refuel. There was no line at all, so each of us built our own burrito and talked about how much fun we had, and how much fun we were going to have tomorrow. Barbara was thrilled at this new world of diving, and already wanted to book another cruise. Welcome to the addiction, Barbara!

While Barbara, Keith and Cindy went back to the cabin to rest a little and get cleaned up for our second formal night, I stayed on deck long enough to watch sailaway. Even though this is a tender port, I still enjoy watching the ship set sail from a port and head off to the next one. I added our next waypoint, Cozumel, into the GPS and headed downstairs for a nice, cool shower. Barbara and Keith celebrated their wedding anniversary the prior week, so Cindy and I ordered a cake from the ship to be delivered at the table in the MDR. We figured they’d appreciate a nice little surprise like that.

What’s for dinner? My burrito made a good snack, but it was most definitely time for a regular meal.

Appetizer: Caesar salad

Main: Duo of Filet Mignon and Short Rib in a red wine sauce

Dessert: Chocolate “Happy Anniversary Cake”

Yeah, now I’m pleasantly full, Keith and Barbara are happily surprised with the cake and we are ready to change into our comfy clothes for the evening. The night is still young, and we don’t get into Cozumel until 10 the next morning. We can sleep in! Yay!

Our comedy club performer tonight is Manny Oliveira. He takes audience interaction to a whole new level. Manny picked on several members of the audience, and even brought up these four teen boys….three brothers and their cousin. It was very funny the way he played one against the other.

We finished his show and walked forward to the Breeze Atrium on Deck 3. This country duo called 2Country4Nashville (2C4N) was in their second of a two week trial with Carnival. They asked that if we liked what they did to please let Carnival know so they could have a more permanent gig. I will most definitely let Carnival know just how good they are! They play lots of the older style country music, most of it by request. Not only are they really talented, but gracious with their time. They let us pose for a photo with them, and took an interest in their fans on the ship. I really hope Carnival picks them up for a regular gig. They deserve it.

Hangin' with 2C4N!

We hung out in the Atrium listening to the music until it was time for the “88 Keys – The Rock N’ Roll Piano Show” in the main theatre. It was entertaining, but in hindsight would probably just hang out with 2C4N next time. It’s been a fun filled day, and I think a little downtime is in order. I want to find out what Mike Scott is up to now.

Coming up in my next blog is our time in Cozumel.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Day 4: Montego Bay, Jamaica, on the Carnival Breeze

In yesterday’s blog I wrote about how the order of ports of call will determine what we do or don’t do. Since this was our first port of three, and we were diving the next two days, we chose not to purchase a day pass at a resort. Keith, Barbara, Cindy and I discussed it over dinner the previous evening and decided to just take a cab to a nearby shopping center for some souvenirs and some Blue Mountain coffee. After a little time in Mo Bay, we’d head back to the ship and hit the pool and water slides.

That was the original plan.

We were scheduled to arrive in Mo Bay at 9 am, so I set the alarm for 8 so I could go up on deck and watch the docking procedures. Keith and Barbara thought this would be a good idea as well, so I would meet them up on Deck 11 or 12 for the best view. I got up on deck just before 9 and watched as we approached the pier and made a nice, smooth stop. Apparently Keith and Barbara decided to sleep in a little more. Hey, fine with me, I still got to watch our arrival.

Once the Breeze was tied up, I returned to our cabin and found Cindy ready for breakfast. I called Keith on the phone and found them ready to eat as well. We made our way up to Lido and thankfully most of the crowd had dissipated. We were in no hurry to get off the ship, so we took our time and enjoyed a relaxed breakfast, talking about our upcoming dives in Grand Cayman and Cozumel. A quick swing by the cabin to grab some cash and we stepped off the ship and onto Jamaican soil. Ya mon!

As we were walking to the taxi stand, inquiring about a taxi to the Rose Hall shops, a fellow passenger mentioned that they were in a taxi van. This taxi van would take us to a few shopping places and lunch as well as a driving tour of Mo Bay for $25 per person. We four looked at each other and quickly decided this would be even better. We could do a little souvenir shopping and have some authentic jerk chicken. Ya mon!

The van held about a dozen of us, and once everyone was loaded (in the van), off we went. It’s hard to appreciate just how mountainous Jamaica is until you ride around in a van. We got to stop at some really spectacular overlooks, and our driver Orel took pride in all the information he gave us. We got to see not only the less fortunate areas, but the ultra exclusive areas as well. There’s a stark contrast between the two, but I realize this isn’t limited to just Jamaica.

We stopped at one souvenir place and both Cindy and Barbara found a t-shirt and a dress, respectively. I was tempted to buy some Blue Mountain coffee, but the price wasn’t much better than what I could find on coffeeam.com so with reluctance, I decided not to buy any. I wrote in a previous blog about my love of coffee, and while it would’ve been fun to buy some locally, I would rather have the quality guarantee from coffeeam. Our driver let us shop for about 45 minutes, then he drove us around Mo Bay some more, pointing out local points of interest for another half hour. We then stopped at Scotchies, a local place known for their authentic jerk.

We ordered a small tasting of the jerk pork, jerk chicken and some “festivals.” Festivals are the Jamaican variant of hushpuppies. They are a mixture of flour and cornmeal, fried to a golden crispy exterior with a soft interior. Think of a mixture of bread and cornbread, and you’d be close.

Jerk chicken

Jerk pork


All of the food was as tasty as I imagined it would be, and I’m glad we stopped to try it out. We ate in an open air dining area, and the sweet smoke from the cooking pits gave the whole dining area a wonderful scent. We drove around some more, through the local produce markets and headed back to the ship. What originally started out to be a quick shopping excursion turned into an informative tour and a savory lunch.

Notice I said we ordered a “small tasting” of the jerk pork and chicken. We weren’t sure how much time we’d have for a full lunch, so we opted for a small snack sized meal that we split. After boarding the ship, around 2:30, Cindy and I went up to Lido for a late lunch. Being a port day, there was only a minimal crowd. Most were still ashore enjoying Mo Bay. We decided to treat ourselves to the famous Guy Fieri burgers. Are you a fan of a really good burger? Book a Carnival cruise on a ship that has a Guy’s Burgers (not every ship in the fleet hast them yet) and let your taste buds have a real treat.

We finished our lunch and returned to the cabin to prepare our dive gear for Grand Cayman the next day (and Cozumel after that). We made sure everything was ready to go, and in the dive bag, as we wouldn’t have much time the next morning to get ready. It was just about time for dinner, so off to the MDR.

I do my best to give credit where credit is due. My choice for dinner came straight from one of our tablemates from a previous cruise on the Carnival Freedom last year. The featured appetizer was jerk chicken wings, and he ordered multiple servings of that as his appetizer and main course. Brilliant! I thought it was such a great idea that I did the same for the night’s dinner. Thank you, Brad! There are three wings per appetizer, so I just ordered six appetizers. Not missing a beat, our waiter said “And what would you like for your entrée?” I laughed and told him that just the six orders of wings would suffice for both my appetizer and entrée. I knew it would be extra work for our waiter to do this, and thanked him for doing so. He just smiled and said he was happy to do this. They brought me two plates at a time, and as I finished the second plate another two would appear shortly thereafter. They weren’t quite as good as the chicken we had at Scotchies, but they were still enjoyable.

Jerk chicken wings

In one of those rare confluences of events, all of us at the table ordered buttered pecan ice cream for dessert….all of us.

We knew that the next day would start early, like 6 am early, so we didn’t want to stay up too late. We decided to watch the Love & Marriage Show in the main theatre and call it a day after that. This show is like an adult version of The Newlywed Game, except R-rated. The Cruise Director (CD) who hosts the show, will pick the most recently wed couple, a couple who’s been married for about 10 years, and a couple who’s been married the longest. Our couples tonight were married just a few days, 15 years, and 62 years.

Just before the show started, we heard an announcement over the PA that the ship was stopping to render aid to a vessel in distress. This is actually a requirement under international maritime law to do so. We found out later from the CD that the ship rescued two Jamaican fishermen who’d been adrift for 5 days! Good for you, Carnival.

The show as hilarious, as usual, and each couple was surprisingly candid with their answers…….VERY candid at times! And the biggest reason that those under 18 aren’t allowed in the theatre. As soon as the show was over we went straight to our cabin and crawled into bed.

Next up, I’ll regale you with tales of scuba diving adventures in Grand Cayman!

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Day 3: Our Second "Fun Day at Sea" on the Carnival Breeze

I mentioned before how depending on the specific itinerary, cruises out of Galveston will have either one or two sea days before reaching a given port. This cruise, for example, followed this pattern:

Day 1: embarkation in Galveston, set sail at 4 pm
Day 2: Fun Day at Sea
Day 3: Fun Day at Sea
Day 4: Montego Bay, Jamaica
Day 5: George Town, Grand Cayman
Day 6: Cozumel, Mexico
Day 7: Fun Day at Sea
Debarkation in Galveston the next morning

Of the many times we’ve done this specific itinerary, all but one cruise followed this route. Last year on the Carnival Freedom, though, the ports were reversed, and we had one sea day at the beginning and two sea days at the end. I really like having the two sea days at the end. Does it make that big a difference, you may wonder? Before we started diving, I’d say “no.” After we started diving, though, our perspective changed.

We learned in our PADI open water course (and it should be common sense) that alcohol and diving do not mix. Obviously one shouldn’t dive while under the influence, but also just as importantly, one shouldn’t dive with a significant hangover, either. Being hungover generally means one is also dehydrated to some extent. Dehydration is one major risk factor of developing decompression sickness (“the bends”). Recreational diving, by definition, is supposed to be fun. There’s that “f word” again. My idea of fun is to not “get bent” on a dive.


It’s quite easy to over imbibe on a cruise if you aren’t careful. Sea days are the perfect way to relax, have a drink, take a dip in the pool, have a drink, listen to some Caribbean music, have a drink.... You can see how this will turn out, right? Realistically, we’ll not worry too much about what we drink on the first sea day, if we have another sea day after that. If we are diving the next day, we both curtail our drinking and stick with water, tea or soft drinks.

Cozumel and Grand Cayman are famous for the awesome diving. I’ve heard through multiple sources that Jamaica doesn’t have many good reefs to dive, so we typically find a land based excursion to do. If anyone reading this knows of a good diving spot near Montego Bay, I’d love to hear about it. When our itinerary was reversed from what we normally do, this put Mo Bay as the last port, with two sea days afterwards. We purchased a day pass at a nearby all-inclusive resort and had a blast. We were done diving and a little dehydration wouldn’t hurt anything at this point. No, we didn’t get too wild, but we did have a great time.

Our second “fun day at sea” started at 8 a.m., when our alarm woke us from a sound sleep. This is another benefit of an interior cabin: it’s nice and dark, making for a deep, restful sleep. Instead of room service for breakfast, we decided on brunch in the main dining room. My favorite breakfast in the MDR is eggs benedict and cheddar grits. Not the healthiest breakfast, I’ll grant, but it’s definitely a tasty breakfast. Here’s a tip if you like eggs benedict as well: Order the Hollandaise sauce on the side. The standard way it’s served is to have the sauce already on the eggs. If they sit under a heat lamp, the sauce gets way too thick.

One caveat to having brunch in the MDR is to not expect a rapid in and out meal. This is a more relaxed setting than breakfast on Lido. I recommend doing brunch at least once on a cruise in order to have that leisurely, relaxed meal and not worry about having to rush to eat. The pool and your next Funship Special will still be there when you are finished. Trust me, I speak from experience.

Now that we were sufficiently fueled for another day of fun, fun, fun, we changed into our swimwear and headed up to Lido. Lemme see you raise your hands if you’ve been on a Carnival ship and know what’s coming next. Yes, you there, back row, third from the left. No, your other left. Yes, you. What was that? Yes, you are correct! Time for the “Very Hairy Chest Contest!” Winner winner pizza dinner! The hairy chest contest has long been a favorite activity on Carnival ships, or at least the ship’s we’ve been on. I’ve never seen less than a fully packed Lido (and surrounding) deck for this event. Our friend Barbara even got to be a judge.

From a pool of about a dozen volunteers, six were chosen to compete, and eventually our three judges picked the ultimate winner. The grand prize? Nothing less than the famous “Ship on a Stick” trophy! Highly prized and sought after, this “24 karat piece of ship” shows the world that you are willing to do what it takes to claim this elusive prize.

We hung out in the pool for a while after the contest and had just enough time to head down to the cabin and get cleaned up for our next activity. I applaud Carnival for creating the Military Appreciation Gathering that happens on every ship on every cruise. This event is held in the main theatre and recognizes all veterans, active and reserve, as well as their families from all branches of our armed services: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. Each branch’s song is played and those who were in that branch are asked to stand and be recognized while the song is playing. Each branch above is a link to a YouTube video of their song. Note: I prefer the original Army song, versus the new version, so that’s what I linked to.

Some of y’all know that I served in both the US Army Reserve as well as the Army National Guard. I received my reserve commission in 1988, and was ultimately assigned to the Field Artillery branch. I am proud to have worn the uniform and stood ready to deploy if and when my country needed me. My only active duty time was during my Officer Basic Course at Ft. Sill. I never got the chance to deploy like many of my friends. Some saw combat and others served in active duty their whole career. These men and women (and their families) deserve recognition, not just on the ship but every day. Every.single.day! The next time you see someone at the store, or on the street wearing a “Vietnam Veteran” cap, or anything like that, go up to them, shake their hand and thank them for their service. You’d be surprised just how appreciative these people will be. I do this, every time I see someone wearing one of those caps. Every.single.time.

As proud as I am to have served in at least some capacity, I’m often embarrassed when people thank me for “my service.” I honestly don’t feel I earned that recognition, especially compared to those who were active duty, saw combat, or were injured or killed. After several of my friends, some combat veterans, told me I was wrong to feel that way, I reluctantly decided to attend this gathering and be recognized. I have to admit, though, that standing there among WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War and current vets, I still felt somewhat like an imposter. Yeah, I know this is my own issue that I need to get over, but I’m just being honest here. Rusty and John, both of you are right. And yes, I did what you asked. I attended the event and felt proud. Thank you for the encouragement.

I promise to attend this gathering, as a veteran, any time I’m on a Carnival ship that hosts it. It’s not about me, it’s about supporting the other veterans. Thanks again, Carnival! You are doing a great thing.

After this event concluded, Cindy decided to donate some money….to Carnival…..in the form of bingo cards. I’m sure she was hoping that Carnival would give some back to her, in the form of jackpot prize money, but alas those pesky little balls didn’t want to match up to her cards. We had fun, though, in the way you can lose money and still enjoy it. (Is that even possible?)

Tonight’s dinner would be at the Cucina del Capitano. This is one of Carnival’s alternative dining venues available for a nominal surcharge. Cucina del Capitano first appeared on the Carnival Magic, and we became instant fans the first time we had dinner there. Cindy and I make it a point to have dinner at Cucina at least once during a cruise on any ship that has it. The portions are huge, and well worth the $15 extra per person.

While everyone at the table orders their own appetizers, entrees and desserts, if more than one person orders the same appetizer, it will be served family style. I like this idea, and sharing food like this makes the meal that much more enjoyable. As you’ll read in tomorrow’s blog, certain appetizers would make the perfect entrée for me. The arancini, or fried risotto balls, are fantastic! I could make a meal just with those.

Appetizer: Arancini, of course

Main: Bistecca Alla Griglia – NY sirloin steak with grilled tomato

Dessert: Sicilian Cannoli

Go ahead and say it. Everyone else does, including me. I say it every time I order this dessert. Don’t know what I’m referring to? Sigh…you have my pity. Click here if you need help figuring it out.

Now that we were well and truly stuffed, we needed to burn off some of this food. A big deck party on Lido was just a little over an hour away, so we hit the RFP for a drink and the comedy club for Mark Sweeney’s adults only show. The lounge was already full, so we stood in the back for his show and headed up to Lido. Unbelievably, two of our group stopped for ice cream! I’m not gonna mention names, KeithandCindy, but didn’t we just stuff ourselves on some awesome Italian food, including dessert? Ummmm, okaayyy…..

Cindy and Barbara definitely burned off dinner with all the dancing they did on Lido, including a huge conga line. OK, so maybe the extra ice cream didn’t hurt, but where did they find room for it? I was still stuffed at midnight when we called it a day.

Coming up tomorrow, I’ll tell about our day touring Montego Bay. Ya mon!

Friday, May 27, 2016

Day 2: Our first Fun Day at Sea on the Carnival Breeze

Anyone at all familiar with Carnival Cruise Line (yes, this is correct, there is no “s” at the end of “Line.”) will know how they market the brand with liberal uses of the word “fun.” Their ships are referred to as the “Fun Ships,” as evidenced by this 80’s vintage commercial with Kathie Lee Gifford I found on YouTube. (I still think it’s a pretty catchy tune, by the way.) The loyalty program refers to past guests as “VIFP,” for “Very Important Fun Person.” One of Carnival’s signature drinks is “The Fun Ship.” Their onboard daily newsletter is called the “Fun Times.” Sea days on a given itinerary are called a “Fun Day at Sea.” And the best part? I pretty much agree with their philosophy.

Cindy and I have cruised on only one other cruise line besides Carnival. There’s no need to mention the name here, as they are a good cruise line as well. The food was wonderful, the staff gracious and helpful and the ship was clean and in good condition. They just weren’t as fun as Carnival, at least not to me. Yeah, I know, “different clientele,” and all that, but fun is fun, right? Don’t get me wrong, we did have fun on the other line, just not the same type of fun as we routinely have on Carnival.

Leaving out of Galveston, you can expect to have at least one sea day, if not two, before reaching any ports, depending upon the itinerary. As with any cruise, port days and sea days have their unique qualities. Sea days will normally have more organized activities on deck, and you can sleep a little later in the morning. Port days generally mean getting up a little earlier to go on an excursion. The ship is much less crowded on port days, and even the popular eating venues will have shorter lines. I honestly can’t say that I have a favorite between the two. I enjoy sea days every bit as much as I enjoy port days.

Taken from the aft Lido deck

We have our routine down quite well now. On our first sea day, and sometimes on our second sea day, we’ll have room service deliver coffee and pastries to our cabin. While we make it a point to NOT wake up early, we also don’t want to sleep half our day away. We’ll set an alarm for around 8 or 9, depending on when we go to bed. Carnival provides these room service cards that one can fill out and hang on their door knob before retiring for the night. There’s a place to designate delivery time for your continental breakfast. I’ll set the alarm for about 15 minutes earlier than the delivery time, as sometimes they are early. It’s a bummer when you hear a knock at the door and have to scramble to get dressed in a hurry just so you won’t keep the room service person waiting too long. Breakfast in bed sets the stage for full vacation mode.

This morning room service was right on time and we enjoyed coffee and a couple of muffins while watching the map screen on the TV. That’s another thing I’m particular about. While the cabin TV carries many regular network channels, I make it a point to NOT watch any network TV. I don’t buy an internet package, either. I want to be as unplugged as I possibly can be. Besides the network channels, Carnival also provides several of their own channels, including a constantly updated map location (with outside weather) as well as a front view camera and Lido camera. I’ll rotate between those three pretty much exclusively.

After a leisurely breakfast snack, we headed up to the Lido buffet to look for Barbara and Keith. We found them easily enough and joined them at their table while they finished their breakfast. The weather on this whole cruise was fantastic, so after looking over the Fun Times for the day, we decided to go back to our cabins and change into swimwear to hang out on Lido. You’ll see in this blog, and subsequent blogs, how we’ll be in and out the cabin multiple times per day. That’s one of the reasons we book the less expensive interior cabins….we’re hardly ever there.

We chose the aft pool this time, as it was less crowded than the midships pool. The aft pool is a bit more “sedate” than the midships pool as well, so this was the best location for us for now. I’ve spent almost my whole life on the Texas Gulf coast, and being fair skinned I know how critical sunscreen is for me. My late brother could spend hours in the sun and develop a nice, dark tan. After half an hour in the sun I’ll end up sunburned if I don’t have adequate coverage. I can tan, gradually, but I have to be very careful doing this. You can probably see where this is going, right?

Aft Lido pool

Sure enough, after spending time in and out of the pool, and in the sun, I didn’t reapply my sunscreen as I should have. I thought about it from time to time, but inevitably one of the Lido bar staff would walk by and I’d order a refreshing beverage for either Cindy or me. When my shoulders started feeling a bit warm, I knew it was going to be too late. I got confirmation of this when some nice gentleman in a Green Bay Packers t-shirt offered me some sunscreen. “Sir, it looks like you need some sunscreen. I have some if you need it.” Uh ohhhh…

Actually, it wasn’t too bad. We always bring some aloe after sun, and I used this aggressively over the next few days. We’ll just call it a “near miss” and use it as a reminder to frequently reapply sunscreen…..as I already know I should (and still ignore form time to time). We just moved into the shade and started to consider what we wanted for lunch. Both of my preferred places, Guy’s Burgers and the Blue Iguana were packed, as was the pizza place. We could’ve gone down to deck 5 for the “Seaside BBQ” on the Lanai, but that would mean giving up our prime shady spots. Hhhhmmmm…..what to do? I guess it’s back to the Tandoor Grill for a bite to eat.

We hung out on Lido for another couple of hours after lunch, taking the occasional dip in the pool, before heading back to the cabin to shower and freshen up. Usually, the first formal night falls on the first sea day, and this was no exception. Dinner was still a few hours away, so we spent some time on Promenade deck (deck 5) exploring and having a drink at the RFP. It’s amazing how quickly time passes on the ship! By my calculation, time doubles when cruising, compared to work. Maybe it’s just me, but my guess is others are affected by this quantum shift in time as well.

Cindy and I always enjoy eating at a large table so we can meet new people. I’m glad that Keith and Barbara are the same way. We were originally assigned to a table for four, so after dinner the first night, we spoke to the Maitre ‘d about switching to a larger table. Thankfully he was able to do this for us, and our new table was a 10-top, with a great view out the back. We met our new tablemates and immediately knew it was going to be a fun table. As soon as I saw the menu selections, especially the appetizer, I knew it was going to be good! Aren’t they all, though? From previous cruises, I learned to order TWO servings of the appetizer, as it is one of my faves.

Appetizer: Tart with braised kale, blackened pork tenderloin and citrus cream – DIVINE

Main: Spaghetti carbonara – rich and creamy

Dessert: Rainbow sherbet – light and refreshing

Another Carnival tradition is on that first formal night, the senior ship’s officers will be on Promenade deck to meet the passengers and pose for photos. This was Barbara’s first time sailing with Carnival, and I encouraged her and Keith to pose with Captain Alcara. I think she enjoyed meeting the Captain.

Keith, Captain Alcara & Barbara

I mentioned earlier how we are always in and out of our cabin. Some people prefer to stay dressed in their formal clothes after dinner, but we prefer more comfortable wear. We quickly changed out of our formal clothes and into our “comfy clothes” for the rest of the evening. Besides, we’ll need our formal clothes once more this cruise, and I don’t want mine to be overly wrinkled, or spill a drink or food on them.

Remember me writing about the fun in Fun Ship? Carnival has two comedians on the ship at a time, switching them mid cruise. They do both a family show and an adults only show. The family show is definitely family friendly and the adults only show is clearly indicated as appropriate for adults only. This is mentioned not only in the Fun Times, but is emphasized by the Comedy Club manager prior to the comedian performing. It amazes me how some people will complain about the language during the adults only shows. Really? Seriously? What part of “adults only” do you not understand? We listened to Mark Sweeney’s family show and enjoyed it.

After Mark’s show, naturally the next place to go was the piano bar. This is a favorite nighttime hangout for Cindy and me, especially when the Piano Bar Entertainer (“PBE”) is good. Admittedly, my absolute favorite PBE is Ben Gentry. He’s a phenomenal entertainer, and always packs the piano bar. He even provides props and different hats for everyone to use. Check out this YouTube video of Ben in action. This is pretty typical of what he does in the piano bar. He even makes getting a tip entertaining. Some people say they would book a cruise for a specific cruise director. Cindy and I would book a cruise, if feasible, if Ben was the PBE.

That being said, though, we found another PBE on this cruise who’s every bit as entertaining as Ben. This was our first experience with Christine Hetfield, and it was fan-freakin-tastic! Christine? Who the #@%& is Christine?? Some will get this, others won't. I'll just let y'all find out on your own. Trust me, it'll be worth it. She’s definitely talented and I can tell we’ll spend lots of time in the piano bar if she’s there. Not only does Christine play the piano, but plays the violin as well. We've enjoyed other PBEs on the ships as well, but in my very humble opinion, Ben and Christine are tops for me.

Multi-talented Christine

We hung out in a packed piano bar until almost midnight then decided to call it a day. Tomorrow’s breakfast will be brunch in the MDR.

Coming up next, our second fun day at sea.