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Travel: Western Caribbean cruise on the Norwegian Epic
By Ray Hanania
We cruised the Eastern Caribbean and the ports of the St. Thomas, St. Marten and Nassau in November 2013 over Thanksgiving and we decided to do it again over Thanksgiving in 2014, this time visiting the port cities of Ocho Rios, Cozumel and George Town in the Cayman Islands.
We enjoyed the Norwegian Epic a lot, mainly because of the stops, the Water Slides for the kids and the phenomenal entertainment that featured the must-see live performance of The Blue Man Group. The Blue Man Group is a show that everyone should see not just once but many times, and they are exclusive to the Norwegian Epic, which is why we decided to chose them instead of another cruise line for this cruise tour. The Blue Man Group is the most entertaining and enjoyable live show I have seen.
Norwegian Epic falls short in some areas, like food and on-board swimming pool, but it makes up for that with the three giant water slides and the “bowl” which was so much fun to try. Between the water slides and the Blue Man Group, my teenage son loved the trip more than we could have imagined.
But, like I said, the food on board the ship is just OK. The dining areas are good, so we opted to pay extra to enjoy the specialty restaurants each night to avoid the unruly, sloppy crowds that sloshed their way into the main dining room like it was their home kitchens in the middle of the night.
One of the big problems with the Norwegian Epic is that you haven’t finished paying for things once you have booked the cruise. We had to pay for Internet that just doesn’t work. This is our second trip and the $100 I spent for 250 minutes of Internet time on each cruise was such a disappointment, despite the great Blue Man Group and water slide, we’re ding another cruise line next time. There’s no option when it comes to the Internet. It’s a necessity and it would be nice if the Norwegian Epic took that amenity as serious as they do the room accommodations, which were nice.
We had to pay extra for good meals. We ate each night at a specialty restaurant including twice at the Hibatchi restaurant, Teppanyaki, which was a lot of fun. Cagney’s Steak House, which was good. And the Brazilian style steak house, Moderno, twice. It was THAT Good. We also tried Le Bistro, French cuisine, just to break up the monotony of the meals. And we enjoyed La Cucina,which featured Italian food in a very decorative, nice lower deck setting. It was part of the Ultimate Dining Package which only cost us $357.
There is lots to do on the ship, but I couldn’t find a place to smoke any cigars. The people on the cruise vary in decency. So many foreigners are just obnoxious and don’t care. We were sitting at a corner view on deck with 3 lounge chairs enjoying the view when an Indian family parked themselves on our seats while we were sitting down. These were Indian Americans! So rude. I had to threaten them with scowls and grunts in Arabic to scare the crap out of of them to get them to leave and show people respect. That was fun.
But nearby was a loud-mouthed woman who just couldn’t stop telling everyone on the ship that she was from Texas. Yes Tex-ASS! Shut up lady. No one wants to hear your endless blowhard silly pointless stories while your husband gets sloshed on beers — that cost quite a bit, too.
Alcohol and drinks on the ship are costly and are not a part of the package. We had to buy a drink package. The alcohol package has to be purchased for all adults in your group, at around $100 a day. I couldn’t imagine drinking $800 in alcohol during the cruise, until you see the prices, of course. So we opted for the lesser all pop and cola drink package for $140 for the three of us. They give you a plastic Mug that you carry around and get refilled. (There are juices, and water in the cafeteria, if you don’t mind getting down with the sows.
There is a lot of deck space to find chairs and relax but it can get crowded. The ship carries more than 4,000 passengers and crew. That’s a lot for even the largest ship.
I slipped while walking down one of the deck stairs on the outside deck near the pool and jammed several fingers including my ring finger, and cut my leg, arm and hand. They have a medical center on board and it turned out that the young Doctor on board knew my family from Barranquilla, Colombia where he is from. Nice guy. They still have to investigate what happened and filled out all the accident forms. They obviously have to protect themselves from people who are looking to file lawsuits over anything. It’s better than playing the Lottery. The doctor had to cut off my three-braided gold wedding ring, which was not easy when my finger was swollen and turning blue. And they took x-rays. There was no added cost for it all and I assumed responsibility for the fall. The doctor noted that they have a dozen accidents on board every day, not to mention a few travelers who never make it back to the ship in time for sailing.
We had three port stops and we planned one day of activities at Cozumel, a split day of tourism (zip lining for my wife) and beach at the Riu for my son and I in Ocho Rios, and a day of luxury at the Royal Palms Resort in Grand Cayman Islands.
We booked a 4-wheel drive dune buggy day excursion for Cozumel. That’s a caravan of dune buggies that drive from the port to a beach and tour the island. I’d been there many times before and the place has definitely changed. The excursion took us to the east ocean-side of the island where we swam and enjoyed a decent Mexican meal under a nice tent. It wasn’t bad but the water was too rough.
While in Cozumel, we also hung around the downtown area near the cruise port docks, Punta Langosta Pier, which is packed with tourist trap junk shops. We walked along the waterfront and had a nice lunch at a hotel restaurant overlooking the water, The Barracuda Hotel.
It was small, had a tiny pool but lots of kids. And turns out it’s a Gay and Lesbian hangout. Bit we had a great meal there on the outdoor patio by the pool overlooking the Cozumel waters. The Barracuda Hotel is best known as a divers hangout, too.
In Jamaica, we split up and my wife went on the Zipline tour and my son and I spent the morning walking around downtown Ocho Rios, hassled by many needy people who wanted to be our guides. We finally relented and walked through the downtown area while the man pointed out the sites and some history. I gave him $20 for his time, which was equivalent to $2,200 Jamaica Dollars.
At 11 am, we were booked to go to the Riu in Ocho Rios. I was a little hesitant about Jamaica. My last trip to Jamaica wasn’t a good one. I didn’t like the resort we stayed at the year before in Negril, the Grand Palladium Lady Hamilton.
The beach there was so small and there were flies everywhere. I was hesitant to try the Riu, but the place turned out to be phenomenal. I really hated the trip to the Grand Palladium Lady Hamilton, but who knows, maybe I shouldn’t be so critical. I expected so much more from them and there was a lot the hotel could have done to make it a better stay by paying more attention to the needs of the guests instead of to themselves, and cleaning up the beach. Here’s my review of that trip.
But the Riu Ocho Rios was simply phenomenal. I am definitely going back there.
The Riu in Ocho Rios has a beautiful beachfront that is large and expansive. There are a lot of palm trees for shade and many lounge chairs to relax. And, it had a wonderful pool area. Plus, the hotel hosted an outdoor barbecue where they offered jerk chicken, rice and black beans and even fresh coconuts that you could drink from. Free. Drinks were free, too.
It was a day trip, which means the hotel allows cruise guests to enjoy their facilities for a fee. It only cost about $90 per person ($180 for the two of us.) It was well worth it.
We grabbed a cab from the cruise port in Ocho Rios, after walking through the town in the morning. I could have taken one of the tourist cabs which rip you off — they wanted $30 US to drive us to the resort which was about 2 miles down the road. We walked to the mainstreet and hailed a cab that had people in it.
When I leaned in and asked how much the cab ride was, he said $200.
I said, “$200 dollars? You have to be kidding?” That was before I realized $200 was Jamaican dollars and less than $2 each. I told him I’d give him $20 and he said get in.
When he dropped us off, I handed him the $20 US and he gave me back $18 US. I was surprised by his honesty and I gave him a $10 US tip.
The ride included four other ladies who were sitting int he front and back and we crowded ourselves in and listened to the Jamaican chatter as we crawled down the road through traffic. I thought my son would appreciate that experience more than an overpriced tourist targeting cab ride.
The water at the Riu Ocho Rios was beautiful. So clean and clear. We really had a lot of fun there. It was a day trip, so we returned by cab to the boat about 30 minutes before it was to depart. My wife loved the zip lining.
Our third stop was to be the Cayman Islands where I had booked a day of luxury in the sun and a private Cabana at the beautiful Royal Palms Hotel in George Town. But the waters were so rough the cruise ship had to skip the port. I was disappointed. That was going to be my one stop where I would relax and smoke cigars the whole day and enjoy the beautiful waters of the Cayman Islands.
Last year’s excursion to the Bahamas was so disappointing. The Bahamas have been ruined by tourism and over building of the Atlantis Water Park which has eaten up most of the beach area with dirty shark pools and stingray pools and water slides. The nice thing was that because the ship never docked, they didn’t charge me for the day trip there which was only $100 for the three of us. We’d buy our own food and drinks, which I didnt mind. Served by a waiter. We would have had a cabana and three chairs in front, right on the beach, that would be reserved just for us.
Oh the humanity of it all lost! Sigh!
The two places I definitely will go back to is the Riu in Ocho Rios. I am so happy I found a great vacation spot in Jamaica. I was so worried about what has happened to tourism there. I’ve spent half my life there with relatives and friends since the 1970s — of course in 45 years, a lot sure does change although Rick’s Cafe in Negril is still brilliant and worth every penny.
The Norwegian Epic has a casino, many floors with music and a big screen TV, a dance floor, and casual dining restaurants that I never got to explore. The ship doesn’t do a good job of telling you what’s on board and you pretty much have to explore on your own, which is good and bad because you might find a gem and you might miss a gem. No matter what the deal they offer, it still will cost $3,000 for three people including the “Children free” option. With the taxes and the mandatory tip you are required to give to the cruise employees ($252 at the start of the trip), it all adds up, and that doesn’t include the drink or food packages, or any of the excursions.
One bar we did try was the Ice Bar. This is literally a bar made completely out of Ice in a room that is chilled to sub-arctic freezing temperatures. You put on a fur lined coat with a hood and gloves and go inside and enjoy two drinks. It’s the one place where Vodka tastes great.
I realize Vodka doesn’t taste as good unless them temperature is below Zero! We didn’t stay long enough to finish our drinks, but it was really something to experience.
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Ray Hanania is an award winning political columnist and author. He covered Chicago Politics and Chicago City Hall from 1976 through 1992. Hanania began writing in 1975 when he published The Middle Eastern Voice newspaper in Chicago (1975-1977). He later published “The National Arab American Times” newspaper which was distributed through 12,500 Middle East food stores in 48 American States (2004-2007).
Hanania writes weekly columns on Middle East and American Arab issues for the Arab News in Saudi Arabia at www.ArabNews.com, and for TheArabDailyNews.com, and TheDailyHookah.com.
Palestinian, American Arab and Christian, Hanania’s parents originate from Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Hanania is the recipient of four (4) Chicago Headline Club “Peter Lisagor Awards” for Column writing. In November 2006, he was named “Best Ethnic American Columnist” by the New American Media;In 2009, he received the prestigious Sigma Delta Chi Award for Writing from the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the recipient of the MT Mehdi Courage in Journalism Award. Hanania has also received two (2) Chicago Stick-o-Type awards from the Chicago Newspaper Guild, and in 1990 was nominated by the Chicago Sun-Times for a Pulitzer Prize for his four-part series on the Palestinian Intifada.
His wife and son are Jewish and he performs standup comedy lampooning Arab-Jewish relations, advocating for peace based on non-violence, mutual recognition and Two-States.
His Facebook Page is Facebook.com/rghanania
Email him at: RGHanania@gmail.com
Visit this link to read Ray's column archive at the ArabNews,com ArabNews.com/taxonomy/term/10906
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