Continuing on with our Royal Caribbean Cruise Adventures …
We spent the first night, Sunday night, on the ship a little later than we planned dancing the night away. On Monday morning we docked in Key West, Florida for our first day’s adventure.
DAY 2 – Key West, Florida
We docked right in the center of the city of the island of Key West. For those of you not familiar with Key West, it is the coolest little funky island, and is the farthest South Island on the chain of the Florida Keys. It takes about 3 ½ hours to drive there on one road from Miami, Florida. It is filled with eclectic bars, unique restaurants with their own personalities, 1 million little shops with fabulous trinkets, and a group of folks who are so unbelievably laid-back. Most of the locals on Key West are the kind of people you just want to hang out with with the beer by the water, and hear their life adventures.
I’ve been to Key West many times before as I previously lived in Miami for about 10 years. On one of my adventures down to Key West with one of my great friends from college we ventured down to the island for something called Fantasy Fest. Fantasy Fest is kind of like a Mardi Gras down in the keys. Thousands of folks drive down, dress up in the most wonderfully outrageous costumes, walk the streets, and party the night away. When I was 21 we headed down to Key West, but we forgot to book a hotel. So, we took my sisters truck and decided we would find a parking lot, and sleep in the back cab.
I was unbelievably surprised at the copious amounts of folks strolling around in giant penis costumes, body paint, and a ridiculous amount of other fun filled costumes. Of course we got ourselves into all kinds of devious trouble, met cute boys, partied the night away, and by 3 AM in the morning we ventured back to a church parking lot where we paid $70 to park our car for the night. When we woke up in the morning we were sleeping in the back of the pickup truck with our little feet hanging out the back side. We woke up to some strange folks tickling our feet… I’m not kidding. It was disturbing and hilarious all at the same time.
Anyway, I had the opportunity to take my power chair off the ship as Key West is relatively accessible. There is this one fabulous restaurant I’d remembered from years prior called Blue Heaven that was wildly eclectic with the best pancakes I’ve ever eaten, and a laid-back atmosphere that made you want to just sit in a hammock with the Corona, and drink the day away. Unfortunately, we only had a few hours to dive into Key West, so I had to make a strict itinerary so we could see a few things before we headed back to the ship. We met one of Aaron’s long-term family friends who had retired in Key West for lunch at Blue Heaven. We laughed, drank, ate delicious food, and then strolled around the little eclectic streets of Key West for hours. Key West doesn’t have many hotels, but rather these old colonial Bed & Breakfasts, which are just precious historical gems I would recommend if you head down that way. Now, they are not particularly handicap accessible, but if you’ve a strong man who can carry you up the stairs … Go for it!
We ended the afternoon at a Tiki hut bar, my absolute favorite, right on the ocean with some reggae music watching the boats sail by, and enjoying the 80° weather while sipping on some lovely alcoholic beverages.
As the day ended we boarded our ship and we were met by our fabulous concierge, Ligia. That night on the ship we had a reservation at a specialty restaurant called Izumi. It was the most delicious sushi I’ve eaten in quite some time, but the challenge was the restaurant was up on the 11th floor of the ship, and there were no elevators. Attached to the stairwell was, what I can only describe as an old-fashioned type ramp that slowly accelerated up the stairwell. I drove into this device, held on for dear life, and after several technical difficulties managed to get to the top of the restaurant. I’m pretty sure we gorged ourselves that night on sushi as it was one of the only healthy options I could find on the ship.
By the time we were done with dinner we went down to our special private little lounge, had a drink, spoke with some of the longtime cruisers, and before we knew it was already around 9 PM. The party was just getting started on the boat, but we knew we had to be up at 5:30 AM the next morning. When we left Key West around 5 PM on Monday we had an entire day on the ship on Tuesday before we reached our first major destination: Cozumel, Mexico.
For a variety of reasons we were extremely fortunate to have a private tour of the bridge with the first officer the next morning at 10 AM. So, we headed off to bed awaiting our first day at sea, which we did not really know, other than our tour, what we would be partaking in the next day.
DAY 3: At Sea
We were invited each morning to a wonderful breakfast in a private dining room, but due to the fact that it takes a while to get me ready in the morning and then Aaron, so we just ordered some room service in order to be ready for a private tour of the bridge.
Ligia met us in our room and escorted us to the front of the ship where we had to pass their multiple security measures from wand frisking, bag checking, and bomb checking just to make sure we weren’t terrorists that were going to take over the ship 🙂
When we arrived at the bridge I was surprised at how few people were on deck. There was the first officer, the captain was taking care of other matters, and two security guards. There were 1 person manning the entire bridge. I learned after a long conversation with the first officer that everything on the ship was on autopilot. They had backup systems upon backup systems in case something went awry, but no paper charts. I asked him what would happen if the entire electrical system on the ship failed and they needed to navigate the charts by hand. I was slightly concerned when he told me that it was not an option for an electrical failure because of all of their backup systems. Let’s just say I’m glad we were not navigating the Arctic with icebergs passing us left and right!
The first officer showed us the radar screens, navigation charts, electrical panels, and the touch screen layouts where they monitored every room on the ship, smoke sensors, etc. It was quite a sensational technical set up and I felt so honored to be able to have half an hour to speak with the first officer as I naturally had 1 million questions on the functionality of the boat. One interesting fact I learned is that they filter out the water in the pool every 48 hours! Can you imagine? Thousands of gallons of water having to be pushed out of the ship and then fresh seawater pumped back in mixed with chlorine. I’m kind of glad they told me that as the abundant amount of folk swimming in the pool every day would make for some quite dirty water indeed.
We finished our tour around 11 AM and then we had the entire day to ourselves on the ship. There were all kinds of activities such as bingo, ballroom dancing, art classes, fitness classes, etc. It was almost mind-boggling as we roamed around the ship for an hour not quite knowing what to do with ourselves. We settled on taking a cigar with a glass of wine, and finding a quiet area on the side of the ship to relax. I took a little bit of a nap in my chair while Aaron sipped on his wine, gently puffed on our fine Nicaraguan Padron cigars, which we brought with us by the way, and watched the ocean roll by. I must admit I got slightly seasick the first day on the ship and had to put one of those little patches behind my ear.
In the middle of the afternoon we ventured over to the main cafeteria to get a bite to eat and found the most outrageously hilarious competition going on by the pool area. When you are at sea most folks flock to the pool area for drunken debauchery, sunbathing, reading, swimming, and meeting other folks. There was an employee who was announcing a competition starting where he invited the largest, and I don’t mean tallest, men to come up to the pool for a belly flop competition for the chance to win $300. I kid you not there was a large person belly flop competition where the audience would vote by yelling and holding up their hands to vote on the best belly flop into the pool using their fingers 1-5. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry that we live in a society that awards obesity 😉 Regardless, I decided to approach this event with a comical frame of mind and watched as the crowds roared. One gentleman was asked how he prepared for this competition and his response was nothing short of disturbing … He said “I prepared for this competition by eating macaroni and cheese, and many many hamburgers.” I think I might’ve been concerned that these poor guys could have drowned if they just consumed all of that food prior to belly flopping.
Before we knew it was already 5 PM and time for dinner. On the ship there are two large dining rooms where you have an allotted time to eat if you so choose, so we decided to see what food they had on offer. When we rolled into the dining room there were hundreds of folks sat around tables of 10. I must admit I am not a huge fan of navigating large dining rooms with chairs everywhere as it is not particularly accessible since I run into everyone. It was quite lovely because as we rolled in the employees actually knew who we were, and escorted us to a private table for two, which was music to my ears. I ordered the snapper and Aaron ordered the filet mignon. I was expecting a fine dining option, but was unfortunately disappointed as the food was quite cold and overcooked when it arrived at our table. However, to be fair, I’m not quite sure what you can reasonably expect with hundreds of folks in a dining room, and servers running around trying to get the orders out in time.
It didn’t really matter though as Aaron and I are our own best company. We generally kept to ourselves other than talking with folks while having a drink as we were on this trip for the two of us. Again, we decided to retire early that night as we had to be up, once again, at 5 AM in order to partake in our first offshore excursion in Cozumel, Mexico where we would arrive at 7 AM the next day. Unfortunately, because we had several offshore excursions booked we really didn’t have much time to participate in many of the ships after hours events. I saw that there were a couple of 70’s and 80’s bands, but they didn’t start playing to around 10 PM. When we were retiring for the night we saw many of the older folks all dressed up and ready to party … What a role reversal!
DAY 4 – Cozumel, Mexico
What we had planned for the day took a lot of research, speaking with multiple folks, and working with outside excursion companies. One important piece of information I kept reading over and over was that if you participate in Royal Caribbean excursions you are usually stuck with a large group of folks, things are overcrowded, rushed, and in a wheelchair I just couldn’t imagine having to go through that. So, I worked with my sister-in-law who works for Cruise Planners. Cruise Planners is a company that helps folks book cruises, but also sets up their own private excursions. We decided to go this route as we wanted to try snorkeling and have a day at the beach.
We were set to go to a beach club where there was supposed to be a beautiful beach to roll into the water, snorkel, have lunch, drinks, and beach chairs to enjoy the day. We were certainly in for a few surprises that we were yet unaware of! Part of the fun I suppose 🙂
We disembarked from the ship around 8:30 a.m. and was escorted by Ligia so we didn’t have to wait in any lines. Honestly, it was fabulous. She even arranged a handicap van for us in Mexico, and remember there are not many of those, that have an electric ramp that would load me into the back of the car. Once we got off the ship she personally escorted us to the van where the taxi driver, who spoke English, loaded me up and told me we were only about 10 minutes away from the beach club.
We were so excited and bursting with anticipation of what to expect next. When we arrived we were greeted by more people than we can count who wanted us to purchase everything under the sun from beach wraps to necklaces to drinks to pretty much everything else you could think of. I did expect this as the entire day you pay a flat fee, but a lot of these folks make their money selling these things on the side. When we rolled in we saw a beach with beach chairs lined up, a fabulous Tiki had bar with a beautiful sitting area, a small pool, and very clean surroundings. Remember we only had several hours to enjoy fun in the sun before having to get back on the ship. So, we had to prioritize exactly what we wanted to do, and that entailed relaxing on some beach chairs, snorkeling, and purchasing a couple trinkets.
The excursion was supposed to be handicap accessible and there was a big sign that said handicap accessible down to the beach. Now, you must remember the definition of handicap accessible in Mexico is slightly different from that of the United States. Of course I was prepared for this and I took my manual chair as I anticipated Aaron would probably have to pull me through the sand a little bit to get me down to the beach chair. This is precisely what we had to do, but since we were some of the first people to arrive we picked out a prime piece of real estate right in front of the ocean. We had some of the guys from the club help us as we were also lugging this very large beach wheelchair we rented that we thought we were going to be able to roll into the ocean with.
When we first got to the beach we were presented with a uniquely challenging situation that was rather disappointing. We were told that we would be able to roll right into the ocean to go snorkeling. Unfortunately, this was not the case. The beach was lined with rocks and in order to get into the ocean you had to step up over this man-made dock structure, go down several steps that were extremely slippery, and into a relatively rough ocean. I have to admit I started panicking a little bit because I wasn’t sure if I was going to really be able to go snorkeling.
We tried to put the beach chair together, but unfortunately it came with too many parts, and we did not have enough time to mess around with the beach wheelchair as we wanted to attempt to get in the water, and relax in the sun a bit. So, we adapted our plans and scratched that idea. We had one of the guys from the club come over and asked if we wanted to go snorkeling, and I told him give us about an hour to attempt what looked impossible at that moment.
Aaron was fabulous as he put multiple towels on a beach chair for me so I wouldn’t get any pressure sores, lifted me up like a princess out of my chair, and sat me down. Once we got situated, covered our bodies in suntan lotion (I had pretty much fried myself the day before last on Key West) and relaxed for a few minutes. The guy finally came over to us and gave us a snorkel, mask, fins, and a lifejacket. He told me the lifejacket was mandatory, but I told him that being paralyzed I float and if I put a lifejacket on I would most likely drown as it pushes my head into the water. He insisted I wear one, but I strongly insisted back that I was not going to wear one. I don’t think I gave him much choice so he sheepishly agreed. When you think about it it’s quite comical that everyone had to wear lifejacket except the quadriplegic! It was Mexico baby … The Art of Mexican Negotiation 😉
The next challenge was how to get me into the water and to carry me to the sea as the distance was a little far. I had to have two guys (Aaron was one) lift me up and carry me several hundred feet down the beach, up a dock, into the slippery steps of the water, and then help me put on my gear. I decided to just go for it and see what happened. As I was being carried down the beach I could feel my arm strength starting to go and not being able to hold around the guys necks. When we finally got to the little dock to get into the water one of the smaller guys who was helping us started to drop me and I almost went down! Yikes!
Fortunately one of the other tourists who was a very strong and muscular guy jumped right in to grab me on the other side safely putting me down in the water. Aaron and I had just avoided a major disaster and probably a Mexican hospital! As Aaron was putting on his mask and fins the guide was helping me to put on my mask; fins would not have been particularly useful since my legs don’t kick very well these days. Unfortunately, the mask was leaking and I just could not make it work. Thankfully, I was fore-thoughtful and I brought my swimming goggles, which I thought would work as I could just pop my head up & down, and take a breath when I needed.
We were finally all set and ready to go, and the snorkeling guy gave me a life preserver to hold onto as he towed me. I periodically held onto life preserver, but mostly I decided to let go and do some free swimming by myself to look at the fish. The reefs were rather unimpressive, but I must say there were quite a lot of fish swimming around, and I can only conclude that they must feed these fish on a regular basis to keep them nearby.
Aaron had never been snorkeling before, so he was somewhere around me flipping around as I was also trying to hold on for dear life because as the guy was pulling the life preserver the waves kept smacking me in my face resulting me gulping large amounts of salt water, still trying to smile, and snorkel at the same time! The challenge with salt water is the salinity makes you more buoyant, so I couldn’t really do my normal pool swim technique as I was floating up to the surface like a dead fish. Aaron would help me push my butt down into the water so I could see things a little bit better. We managed to take some great photographs and after about 45 minutes I think we were both knackered.
We decided we wanted to order some lunch, sip on piña colada’s, and watch the ocean from our lounge chairs. The tricky challenge was how to get back out of the ocean. Thankfully we had that lovely strong muscular tourist help lift me out of the water and carry me down to the beach with Aaron. I was holding on for dear life, but I definitely underestimated that being carried a ways down the beach was not particularly easy for me as I had to hold really tight around the guys necks again, and my strength only allowed for me to do that for a few minutes after swimming for so long.
We safely put me down onto the beach chair, Aaron made sure to check my skin for any immediate cuts or bruises, and we ordered some lunch. We were served piña colada’s, ceviche, and grilled fish on the beach as we watched other tourists flop around with their snorkels several hundred feet in front of us.
I must say this was my favorite moment of the entire trip … This one particular hour Aaron and I were just basking in the sun, eating some tropical nibbles, sipping delicious frozen fruity drinks, and realizing that this was our pace in life! Unfortunately about an hour later we already had to pack up and go if we didn’t want to be left behind in Mexico. We had our taxi driver meet us who charged us an exorbitant $50 for 20 minutes. Unfortunately, the rate was negotiated by the cruise ships before I had had a chance to do some “Ali” bargaining.
Once we arrived back on the ship we had to strategically get in the shower as we were both really salty. As I mentioned in my previous blog we practiced this in the hotel in Tampa the night before. It took us a few hours to shower me, shower him, wash my hair, and get all pretty again before heading out for dinner that night. I think it was about 8 PM when we decided to call it quits and go to bed as our next crazy excursion to Belize was that next morning at 9 AM.
Stay Tuned for our wacky and wild Mayan Ruin Adventures in Belize on Day 5 … You won’t want to miss this one!