The primary question I was asked when telling people I was planning a cruise came as no surprise: "Aren't you worried or scared?"
After all, over the past year, there's been one deadly shipwreck. Not to mention the sufferings of those aboard Carnival's Triumph as it stood dead in the water, then limped for days toward shore, offering patrons little more than onion sandwiches. And then there was the fire aboard Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas just weeks ago. All this is enough to make a landlubber out of any water lover.
But I wasn't worried in the least. Granted, I'd made our reservations well before Carnival's recent unpleasantness. And naivety is bliss, since it had been a good 15 years since my last cruise, and I'd forgotten much about cruising.
The idea of spending five glorious nights aboard Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas sounded like heaven to me.
We set sail from Tampa, so driving to the port made sense. For starters, driving, even with the high price of gas, was more economical.
If you choose to drive, you'll find parking in a multi-story garage directly across the street from the pier. The garage has dedicated floors for cruise patrons. The cost is $15 per day, and the garage is monitored for security. To make embarkation even easier, valet parking is available. Just drive up to the drop-off area and there will be plenty of porters on hand to load your luggage onto carts, and they'll take you right over to the check-in area. Just be sure to have plenty of dollar bills in your pocket for tips so you don't have to ask your porter to make change.
Jewel of the Seas is one of four ships in Royal Caribbean's Radiance class of ships. There are no zip lines or bumper cars, but with six pools and whirlpools, a rock-climbing wall, mini-golf course, a large casino filled with slot machines and gaming tables, a movie theater, video game arcade and more, cruisers are never lacking for activities.
Or if relaxing is your idea of the perfect cruise, stake out a chair or table in the Solarium, an adults-only retreat. Jewel of the Seas is filled with dramatic open spaces: floor-to-ceiling windows that offer expansive views; soaring heights that seem to reach the sky and beyond; glass elevators that look out over the sea. And the Solarium is one of the best places to appreciate it.
The staterooms range from interior ones with no windows to those with balconies, and larger suites with one and two bedrooms and huge balconies. Our junior suite was big enough for two people, but few more. Who wants to spend the day in the room anyway? Though it was on the small size, it had most everything we needed, including a nice-sized bathroom, TV, sofa and, on the balcony, a table with chairs.
People cruise for many reasons, but all look forward to the bountiful meals served 24 hours a day. Food is a celebration aboard Jewel of the Seas, a floating food frenzy with restaurants at most every turn, as well as small cafes tucked away in unexpected places. I ate my way from Tampa to Cozumel and back.
Jewel of the Seas' main dining room, The Tides, features a different multi-course menu each night. The Royal Seafood Salad, crimini mushroom pastry and Fisherman's Plate with tiger shrimp, broiled lobster and seasonal vegetables was a memorable combination. We dined at The Tides four of the five evenings onboard ship.
Our last evening was spent at Chops Grille, where I had an oyster platter and lamb chop to rival any I've had on land. The other specialty restaurant, Portofino, has an outstanding Italian menu. Chops adds $30 per person to your account; Portofino is an extra $20.
Coffee, tea, water and ice tea are always complimentary. But you will be charged for all alcoholic drinks, bottled waters and carbonated beverages, and they can be pricey. One thing that was not consistent were the prices charged for a glass of wine from bar to bar. Keep your receipts and, as I did, question this. The charge was quickly adjusted. If you plan on drinking an ocean of alcohol, soda, juice or bottled water, you might consider purchasing a beverage package before you leave home. The cost ranges from a reasonable $6.50 per day ($4.50 for kids) for the soda package, to $45 per day for the premium package that includes all alcohol and nonalcohlic drinks.
If you need to work off all the delicious meals you're most likely to consume, try visiting the fitness center and track located on the top deck.
Port to port
While sailing, the ship is a floating city. At full capacity, Jewel of the Seas accommodates 2,500 passengers, plus more than 800 crew members. When it arrives at port, however, the ship becomes a ghost town. Spending a day sightseeing in a new town every other day or two, without having to pack your baggage and move locations, is why many people prefer cruising over vacationing on land and by car. So pick your itinerary carefully.
We slept well, sailing on calm seas our first night, arriving in Key West at daybreak. After a leisurely breakfast in bed - room service is free - we took our time disembarking and exploring the southernmost city in the U.S. A must for most is a stop at Margaritaville or Sloppy Joe's, as well as walking Duval Street with all its charming bars, shops and small cafes. If you're a tourist who likes to get off the beaten path, find Schooner's Wharf Bar at the foot of William Street along the Historic Harbor Walk.
Our second full day was spent at sea, so the casino was open for a little gaming at the penny machines for me and the blackjack table for my husband. If that's not your thing, there's duty-free shopping to be had with excellent prices on jewelry, clothes, liquor and more. The onboard movie theater shows films that aren't too far out of date. And in the evening, the Main Theater has some great performances.
Cozumel was our final destination, and if you're not familiar with the island, it would be best to arrange a sightseeing tour through Royal Caribbean. There have been occasions when locally arranged tours don't get back to the ship in time and you miss the boat. It will leave without you, and you'll have to work with representatives at the port to get back home.