Tennessee will always have my heart, but in the middle of bleak winters, the ocean calls my name. I yearn for blue skys and crystal clear waters, the sound of waves gives me an incredible peace as it crashes into my soul. Over the last few years, I've been able to travel to the Caribbean by way of a cruise, which has comepletly won me over as the only way to travel.
My husband Joe and I were gifted our first getaway minus kids in over 12 years by my parents who are totally amazing. As a photographer I was looking forward to snapping some rare shots, but wasn't there on the job. I brought my 24-70 lens and enjoyed no pressure shooting.
Not having to worry about searching for a restaurant, finding hotels, or looking for entertainment, the cruise experience takes care of all of that for you in the price it would cost (or less than) if you went a la carte. Previous lines we have taken were Carnival and Royal Caribbean, but this time we went on a bit of a limb in choosing MSC. I had never heard of the company before but with the deals they were running and the ports of call that we had yet to visit, thought we'd give it a try. Our ship was the lovely MSC Divina, inspired by Sophia Loren.
MSC is an Italian Cruise line that is making its way into the American market. I have a feeling you'll be hearing more from them as it appears they are growing by leaps and bounds. My concern was that there would be little attention to American customers, but the reality was just the opposite. Although we were definitley in the minority, it seemed as though MSC is catering to American customers. The annoncements and shows were only in English and food was definitely not authentic Italian, like I was hoping for. Well you can't have it all, and what they lacked in the food department they certainly made up for in entertainment.
The cruise director Andre Schlemmer was exceptional. Hailing from South Africa, his unique accent, and modern persona made you feel extremely at ease and in good hands. Waking up to his morning show was a delight as it mirrored SNL sketches or a good YouTube video.
The ship was packed with a total of 5,000 people, including over 1,000 staff and 600 children. The variety of passengers was amazing, everywhere you turned you heard someone speaking a different language. Talk about diverse, I couldn't even keep count of the different countries represented and even simple small talk was difficult, but its amazing to see how people communicate even with the language barrier.
The entertainment was phenominal--I'm talking Cirque Du Soleil/Broadway play calibur. After the Alice in Wonderland Show which had costumes just like the Tim Burton movie, we realized the quality of the performances and got to the show early each night for a good seat. One night was Pirates of the Caribbean theme, another Michael Jackson that had you fooled it might really be him, another was a French, and Italian. The dancing, acrobatics, and singing was so good and the same cast performed each night and left us wondering how they memorized it all. Maybe that's why my dancing career never panned out.
I had a great time getting to know the onboard photographers, who snag pictures of you all dressed up every evening. After telling them I was in the same line of work, we had plenty to talk about. Nickola from Macedonia was joking with us about the traditional "cruise poses"
so on the last night we put him in front of the camera and made HIM do the thumb under chin pose, I think it was a first for him!
We flew from Nashville to Miami. Embarkation was relatively quick and easy with some organizational issues MSC could improve, but were on the boat in less than an hour.
We headed straight to the buffet and got our barrings of the largest ship we'd ever been on.
I once heard a great piece of advice from an experienced cruiser that the best way to avoid "cruise weight" is to simply always take the stairs and not the elevator (which is always packed anyhow). So we did that as often as possible and also worked out every day in the fabulous gym the ship provided. We were pleasantly surprised actually feel more fit after!
The first 2 days were at sea and we enjoyed the balcony off our suite which was suprisingly upgraded. First port of call was St. Maarten which we had already booked an island tour online. The tour was informative and stopped along the way around the entire island, half of which is French, the other Dutch. It ended with a stop at a private beach but rough seas prevented any snorkeling to my husbands dismay.
Next day was San Juan Puerto Rico, which was definitly the highlight of the entire trip. The old historic city is bright, hilly, fresh and clean with culture. I had previously booked a food tour online with Flavors of San Juan. Our guide Rosio took us and 2 other families around the city on foot stopping at 6 different restaurants, as she was giving us history and cultural information. We got to make our own mofongo, a traditional dish, in a 15th century prison, go to a premium chocolate bar, and sip pina coladas on a rooftop terrace. There was no better way to spend the day.
Then Grand Turk was the final port of call, and like Andre told us, "you literally just get off the ship and there's the beach" He was right. In search of a less croweded, touristy paradise, I had researched Pillory Beach, so we hopped in a cab for a 10min. ride over. Grand Turk is terribly small and there is really nothing there but beach. Don't worry about sightseeing, there's nothing to see but a few mules wandering around and vacation homes. We found a pine tree at Pillory and set up camp for a few hours where we read and took pictures of each other.
The last day at sea I indulged in the extremely well equipped spa onboard. Then moved out to the crowded pool area where there was no where to sit but in the pool. The warm sun and salty air was just right, and I took a Bachata lesson on deck. The entertainment staff made sure there was never a dull moment.
Arriving back in Miami, we rented a Dodge Charger sportscar and proceeded to South Beach. We quickly realized it's the Beverly Hills of the south and didn't find much we were interested in.
We headed toward Ft. Lauderdale in search of a cigar or coffee shop and discovered the smaller but very well kept town of Hollywood, FL. Had a great time just walking the strip there and the perfect weather.
On the layover in Charlotte, we happened to see a friend we haven't seen in 4 years, then realized we were on the same flight to Nashville! It was the icing on the cake to get to catch up with her on the final leg of our journey.