Holland America Port of Call: Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands

If there's one thing that can totally throw you off cruising around the Western Caribbean, it's setting your clocks back! Upon arriving in Grand Cayman we had to do just this. Which isn't too difficult to handle, but then it happened to us again
the next night. On the main deck of the ship near the middle area (I'm sure there's a proper ship name for 'middle of the ship') near the elevators are giant monitors that tell you the position of the ship, the current local time, weather forecast and all the other need-to-know info if you truly need to know. But I never thought to check this. When our cruise director announced the time change, we flipped our watches back and never thought about it again. I guess we could've checked our room phone too for the correct time, but that never occurred to us. Hey, we were on vacation! Who cares what time it is. You'll see where I'm going with this a bit later...

Today's port of call was Grand Cayman. I'm not sure what I expected. I remembered always hearing about people who vacationed in Grand Cayman and the diving and string ray swimming they did there. The way they presented it, it always felt like the 'it' place to take a proper vacation! Pulling into port, my initial thoughts were that it didn't seem as fancy as the other ports we'd been to. The main priority of the shoreline is to get the boats and tenders in and out of the island as efficiently as possible. I guess it wasn't about presentation here like Grand Turk was. Grand Cayman is more lived, so to speak. Stepping off the tender, you go through a small covered area where
you're bombarded with excursion options, then there you are! Streets and shopping everywhere! You're in the thick of it all immediately. My first inland impressions were of scattered hints of a North-Eastern coastal town. Complete with the brightly coloured buildings and traditional sign posts painted in white and blue indicating the maritime heritage trail around the area. It was extremely hot the day we arrived, and the streets were busy and full. It was a bit overwhelming. We struggled our way across the street through the traffic and took off shopping.

The stores inside are incredible. If you're looking to drop some serious change, this is where you want to do it. The selection is abundant and filled with the greatest amount of designer watches I'd ever seen

(amongst a ton of other jewelry and sparkle)! And every store feels this way. We toured around a bit. I tried on a pair of $5,000 dollar earrings at Milano. Hey, this wasn't my intention! The sales lady noticed my citrine ring that I'd purchased in Grand Turk, which she assumed was a yellow diamond (hah), offered us some very welcomed bottled water and had me decked out in five grand worth of the most gorgeous yellow diamonds I'd ever seen. After I found out that these clearly out-rivaled my great Grand Turk ring price of $115, I quickly discarded them out of my ears and away we went. We
also scored a collector island map print for..., well, I'm not sure why. They like to give you gifts if they think there's a chance you could spend some money.

Our walk around was pretty tiring, so we grabbed a nice overpriced cocktail at the Green Parrot, then jumped back on our tender for the ship to spend the afternoon there. Our included itinerary with the travel company called for a culinary demonstration at 6pm, so after a quick nap on the ship we headed down to the Culinary Arts Center. Because of the time change, and

our culinary event actually staying at the traditional time before we flipped our watches back, we were an hour late for our cooking demonstration. Which was disappointing. But they were just starting to cook the crab cakes when we got there so we were able to join in for the best part. I still haven't figured out how we missed the demonstration. I believe now the ship schedule stays the same even though we sailed through time changes. Perhaps. But the crab cakes were amazing! It was a nice treat!

We also chose to dine in the main dining room this evening. After much persuasion by me. Mom prefers to wing it on the Lido deck, but I love to check out the decadent menu options each night. Okay, so that's only part of the reason. My other two parts included the very cute main dining room guy who I chose to nickname 'Ashton' because he looked like Ashton Kutcher. That was our name for him for our cruise. :) And the other part included the amazing dining attendants we had at our table every night who were just awesome! Absolute rock stars! They quickly learned our preferences and had our table set just for us every night by the time we got there. Balsamic vinegar and wine for the bread, and extra caesar salad dressing for mom (a gravy boat worth), and red wine for me! Our wine attendant loved to keep my glass
topped up. After about the third time of him trying to top it up I politely declined, saying I was good. To which he replied "Oh, but you don't have to drive anywhere". Well, this is true. Okay, I'll take another glass. "It'll help you enjoy your night" he said. How did he know?!! :) I really miss our dining room crew.

I was really looking forward to the next morning though. We'd be stopping in Costa Maya, Mexico. To see the Mayan Ruins! I'd never been to Mexico before and I always wanted to see the Mayan Ruins so this was a huge day on my list!

Holland America Day at Sea

I have to admit, after two full days of ports of call I was looking forward to a relaxing day at sea. I was excited to explore the ship and sample some of the on-board amenities. Number one on my agenda was playing bingo with DJ Renee in the Showroom at Sea! But first I'd start with a scrumptious breakfast on the Lido Deck. I had a great day planned, but found out I'd have to go it alone because mom would need to be in meetings all day with her travel group. No worries, I can do this.

First we headed for breakfast together. The Lido Deck is great for this because there's a huge selection of all the best breakfast fare. And you can eat anytime during the morning and don't need to wait to be seated. And the windows along the interior area overlook the sea which it's always fun to sit and watch the view while you eat breakfast. This morning we could see the coast of Cuba where my sister was vacationing at the same time. We waved a quiet 'hello' to her over breakfast. At 10:00am it was time for the meeting to start, so I began my ship adventure.

I hit the Showroom at Sea room early to get my bingo card. It seems every day that more people show up for the bingo than the day before. It gets pretty popular as the week goes on. But, I didn't win. Oh well, it's always fun. When you get down to one number you have to stand up. Every time someone stands up they play "hallelujah" and people boo at you! :). It's all good fun though.

My next adventure involved checking out the shopping seminar with our on-board shopping ambassadors Nicole and Todd. This. Was. Fun. Upon arriving everyone received bags filled with pamphlets of the different shops we'd be seeing in our next port of call, Grand Cayman. There were also giveaways of gems and jewelry! I love shiny things and this was right up my alley. We talked about watches (mmm), diamonds, jewelry pieces, different types of gemstones, what to look for, where to get the best deals. It was very informative. I learned the Caribbean is the best place to shop because it's all tax-free and watches are slightly cheaper then MSRP at home. I love watches! When I left there, I was a walking encyclopedia of shopping knowledge! And itching to spend!

Next I decided to grab my Sony Reader and head to the Lido deck for some light reading by the pool. Traveling solo is unique because you're forced to really think about what you want to do. And normally you do things and see things you wouldn't normally make time for when sharing your time with another person or group. I settled in at a table at the back of the deck in the shade with a nice view of the pool. I was going to read but I spent more time people watching. Seeing who people were with, what they were doing and trying to imagine what their story was. Why they were here and who they were with and what their life must be like off the ship.

Because ours was the last Caribbean tour before our ship repositioned for Europe, there was a huge sale on the Lido deck. Purses, scarves, costume jewelry all at crazy low prices. I briefly tempted the idea to dig in and join the frenzy, but the tables were *insane* with bargain shoppers. It looked like a ferret free for all as I saw the back of heads bobbing up and down between the scarfs and handbags flying around. I decided I'd head over to the meeting room early to meet mom for her lunch break instead. To my excitement she was given the afternoon off so we'd have the afternoon free to roam. Yay!

The best thing about being on a cruise is the freedom to take a quick cat nap - whenever you want! Sure, you can do that at an all-inclusive resort too but a cruise ship is more like a high class hotel on water, with tons of activities and amenities, and the opportunity to see more of the world with multiple ports of call. An all-inclusive doesn't offer that, so therefore cruising wins! At least for me! We decided to take advantage of our hotel on water, and catch a quick nap before our private invitation-only cocktail reception in the Crow's Nest with our ship's captain. Very exciting!

The Crow's Nest on the Nieuw Amsterdam is pretty awesome! Our cocktail reception included open bar with exquisite hors d'oeuvres and a magnificent wide angle view of the water around us from the front of the ship. Matching these long line of windows and glorious view are the most comfortable chairs on the ship. And they recline! This was one of my favourite spots! This is absolutely something to check out!

All in all, I really enjoyed our day at sea and it was a nice break from our active ports-of-call schedule. But I'm the type of vacationer who likes to keep busy so I was really looking forward to our next stop in the morning: Grand Cayman. Ooo, and all that jewelry!

Holland America Port of Call: Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos

Did someone say swim-up bar? Welcome to the second stop on our Western Caribbean tour: Grand Turk, in the Turks & Caicos Islands! There are islands, then there's the Turks & Caicos Islands. I've been here once before so I knew this stop would be a highlight on our tour. It turned out to be one of the best! It seems like it's always sunny here and the beaches are filled with beautiful sun-bleached crystal white sand!

I enjoyed this port the most because we didn't have to tender in. Our ship was docked which meant we could easily come and go off the ship as we liked without having to wait for the tender boat to take us back and forth. But really, if you ever came here you'd never want to leave! Upon arriving we were greeted with a huge duty free shop and some of the BIGGEST bottles of alcohol you've ever seen. But don't try to take them back on the ship with you. Haha, they won't make it through security when you board (think x-ray machines and metal detectors and lots of security, and a nice present for the staff if you do try)!

Grand Turk has lots of fun shopping. Novelty clothing like Piranha Joes, nail polish that changes colour with the sun, and lots of jewelry too. Lots of delicious jewelry! Diamonds International is here, which is a staple throughout the Caribbean but sort of feels like a scam to me. They remind me of those commercials with the greasy guy begging to buy your gold for top dollar if you only conveniently ship it to him first. Lots of promises of everything being cheap, no tax, and of the highest quality. Yeah.

First mom and I did some shopping. We're girls so that's our specialty. :) We picked up some Piranha Joe shirts and hats for the family, then I spotted Margaritaville. Wait, Margarittaville? Like as in "wasted away again in Margaritaville"? The Jimmy Buffet song one? For real?


Oh wow, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Surely this can't be exactly like the song. Is Jimmy Buffet aware of this plagiarizing of his work? The inviting party atmosphere tumbled out onto the cobblestone sidewalks we were pounding.

I have to check this out. "Mom, let's go!". I took off in a fast trot towards this beautiful Caribbean mecca and sure enough. Yes, to my delight there is an actual "Margaritaville" bar and restaurant (and gift shop) chain, and Jimmy Buffet owns it! Way to stretch that one big hit wonder into something sustainable!

Mom's a pretty easy going traveler and was totally game to check this out. Like all well-planned venue layouts, we entered into a store area first. We grabbed more Margaritaville t-shirts. "This one will be my camping/party t-shirt!". Then we wandered with eyes wide into the bar area. I couldn't believe what I was seeing: to the left was a quaint thatch hut with a DJ inside, with a line up stretching around the pool area. The leader of the line was tipping their head back

under the thatch hut while the DJ poured a shot into their mouth. "FREE SHOTS". Holy geez, it's barely noon! The place was buzzing with patrons from the Carnival cruise ship already docked beside us. Looks like they had a good early start!

In front of us was the largest most amazing pool I'd ever seen! It wound around the area that was filled with beach chairs, umbrella tables, and lots of sun! There was a wave runner surfing pool, and my favorite: a swim-up bar! Oh my gosh, I just found my home!

Mom and I parked in at the restaurant to the left and ordered the most amazing nachos and what else? Margaritas! The food here is amazing, but you will want to bring your wallet because it's pricey!!! But it's worth it. Obviously we didn't choose to do any excursions here so the pricey lunch was okay for the afternoon we were about to have instead. After lunch we grabbed some beach chairs by one of the bridges over the swimming pool and that's where we spent the rest of the day. Now, anyone who knows me knows I hate water. I hate being wet, splashed, rained on, whatever.
Outside of a shower or a glass, keep water away from me. But I spent the entire afternoon in this pool! I paid a couple visits to the swim up bar where more margaritas ensued. A word of caution: these are pricey too at $10 dollars a pop, but they go well with the pool! I'd recommend bringing lots of ten dollar bills and a few $1's for tipping. By the time you swim over to the bar and get your drink, you don't want to be lugging around change. Especially American $1 bills that would get soppy and wet in the pool.

We had some good laughs watching people try to man the wave runner too. It's basically a simulated wave pool that you surf on...until you fall off which can happen pretty quick.

After soaking up lots of vitamin D, we decided to reluctantly call it a day and head back to the ship. On the way out, we swung by the Diamonds International store where I went against everything I stood for and fell in love with a yellow citrine ring flanked in a semi circle of "diamonds" followed up by a beautiful silver titanium ribbon. At $115, I didn't feel I was breaking the bank. It was a fun treat purchase to help remember my day.

By the time we got back on the ship we were exhausted. We grabbed an early dinner (complimentary room service of shrimp cocktail for this tired fish), and watched on our balcony together as we silently glided out of port as the sun set on our happy little island. This was definitely a day I will never forget.

Holland America's private Bahamas: Half Moon Cay

PiƱa Coladas at 10am? Yes, I'm guilty. In a commemorative super-sized sippy thermos no less. Welcome to Half Moon Cay (pronounced 'key'). Our first stop on our Holland America Western Caribbean tour. Located in the Bahamas, this island belongs exclusively
to HAL and only welcomes its on-board guests. If sun, sand, seclusion and serene are your thing then this is where you want to be. Boasting more facilities, services and activities than any other cruise line's private island this mini piece of paradise welcomes you with 2 solid miles of powdered sand beach and a day filled with relaxation and warmth.

Our morning here began with our drinks underneath the bar hut as we enjoyed the warm breeze and watched the other passengers file in. The crew who runs the ship also runs the shops here that are located at the entry point of the
island. Amazing prices; I picked up a beautiful fuschia and white shell bracelet for $2 dollars, and all day long the shops offered draws and giveaways. The majority of our amazing day was spent under a clamshell on the beach. Clamshells are like semi-circular shade huts that lay close to the ground. These must be reserved through and they go fast, so if you're planning on visiting be sure to snatch one up.
The beach itself is gorgeous with creamy white sand, and ample swimming and water activities. Nothing beats lying on the beach with a drink in your hand, watching the parasailers on a warm sunny day with a panoramic view of the majestic Nieuw Amsterdam in the background. Wow.

Lunch was also provided by the HAL staff and was filled with much more than any one person could possibly eat in one sitting, including an abundant array of salads, barbecued meat and fish, corn on the cob, and plenty of desserts including ice cream and brownies.

Behind the beach nestled amongst the colourful vegetation you'll find the pirates bar. Newly built and modeled to resemble a pirates ship, this beauty is sprinkled with the essence of Captain Morgan himself. This is a great place to grab some nachos and a beer and just relax and enjoy the live entertainment.

Our time here seemed to slip by quickly but this was singularly the most relaxing leg of our trip. HAL has done a terrific job building up this private island to include all the needed amenities but still maintaining the feeling of exclusiveness and escape. This one is a treasure.

Holland America, ships, and stuff

My favourite photo of the ship

I've *never* been on a cruise. Before this trip, I was a cruise virgin. I really didn't know what to expect. I'd heard stories about how these ships were big (be sure to call them ships, because if you call them boats, you'll quickly be corrected by those with an extreme passion for this lifestyle. It's not pretty, either).

Before our cruise, the general consensus of the population went something like this: Oh, you're going on a Holland America cruise? Those are for old people.

I cannot tell you how many times people said that to me. Doesn't that sound exciting and conjure up rousing images of soft-serve ice cream and crokinole on the Lido deck before an early check-in at sunset? Hah - yeah, this couldn't be farther from the truth! The theme of this ship was far from it. For the population, I would say half were retirees. But the other half was a solid mix of young adults, and families with children.
And of the retirees, I think I saw one the whole time who was actually beyond retirement if you catch my drift. The rest were young and young at heart and active, and participated in the late night festivities and shore excursions along with the rest of us. I was on this trip with travel agents who represent the top 25 agencies in North America, and their sentiments were constantly echoing the same thought throughout the week: "I always perceived Holland America as being for old people but its definitely not".

One thing I did pick up around the ship is that Holland America's theme is less people; more room per ship. I'd believe this to also be true. I hate crowds, and I hate line ups.
It's not that the ship ever once felt empty, but nearly ever did I have to wait in a line for anything. The open dining in the Lido area was probably the only lineup I experienced and it would never be more than 2-3 people deep.

A better word I would use for the atmosphere of this ship would be vibrant. There's always something going on from the time you start at breakfast, to the disco parties that run well into the night. There's a large blend of activities to satisfy any age, and the ship even has a kids club - I thought that was something you only saw on a Carnival ship.

Show Room at Sea

But the staff of Holland America are truly the stars! They are the most wonderful people I've met and they're what I miss the most! They made the experience go from just 'amazing' to "trip of a lifetime".

Whatever you need, the staff is there and ready to help. They're friendly and engaging. They truly care about your experience! And they're never in short supply. Our dinning room assistants got to quickly know our dinner preferences and always had our table prepared with our favorites by the time we arrived! Small touches like that really make the experience memorable.

I cannot wait to return on a Holland America cruise again. We're thinking about trying the Mediterranean next summer! And because we've sailed with HAL before, we're automatically 1-star Mariners and qualify for perks (I love points, and I love perks)! I can't wait!

Here are some of my recommendations if you're sailing Holland America...

There is the Lido deck for leisure dining, but my preference was the Manhattan Room, our regular dining option. The food there is amazing. But also, be sure to reserve a night at the Pinnacle Grill. The food there is incredible - very elegant, and extreme fine dining. The Pinnacle Grill is a must!

There's just SO much to do on the ship, you will not possibly cover it all. Some musts include catching a show in the Showroom at Sea in the evening. The performances are well polished, and spectacular! I enjoyed the daily bingo, with a growing jackpot each day from $10,000 to $100,000. Can you imagine winning that?!! On the last day was also a free-cruise bingo. I saw a girl win a free cruise. That would be cool. The culinary demonstration is also a must. The culinary arts center is very posh. And be sure to grab a drink in the crow's nest. The view (and super comfortable chairs along the front) are spectacular!

This was a big deal for me because I'm a huge water drinker, and if you want a bottle of water on the ship you need to buy it. There are pop cards you can purchase (ick), but if you can live on water/juice/coffee/tea/iced tea, then I strongly suggest grabbing drinks from the Lido area whenever you need a drink outside of your meals. Water and drinks there are free, and if you cannot find what you're looking for, there's always staff around to help get what you need.

A girl's favourite! I didn't realize this, but all the shopping on board our ship was tax and duty free! Our tax in Ontario is 13% so no tax is always a treat! I'm not sure if this is exclusive to any at-sea shopping on the ship, or just because we were in Caribbean waters, but be sure to check it out. We picked up some great items and souvenirs here!

(More cruise review to come soon...)

Clothes shopping for Orlando...now

I'm not really sure if I need new clothes. Or need summer clothes in general, but because I'm a girl it's a default answer to say I do. And think I do. Which is why I picked up some more summer items today (eek)!

I could probably have gotten away with what I have already (and wore on our cruise) but we are going to Orlando next month, and that's a nice, sunny state as well. So some nice new summer clothes just seem like a nice reason to take advantage of the *great* sale on American Eagle's website today! 20% off everything this weekend, and free shipping! Free shipping to Canada is huge! So here's what I gave in to...

I loooove the dress. My concern was that it's the same colour as the skirt I purchased earlier this year (see a few posts below...). But in the end I decided I loved the grey the most, and should buy the colour I like best. The orange tunic was a "I-need-something-I-can-also-wear-to-work" purchase, but also because it matches the cute sand-coloured shorts I got. And also because I just love that colour!

So yeah. There's my total girl-rationalization for buying these clothes. But also because it was a great deal - of course! :)