Sunday, January 4, 2015

Oh, Island in the Sun: Breeze-ing Back to the Southern Caribbean (Part Six)

I was up early.

Not early enough to catch the sunrise – that always seems to be just out of reach (because when it comes down to it and I’m in a REM-induced sleep haze, I’ll always semi-consciously choose sleep over just about anything else) – but up before my alarm, my family and the arepa stand. Between the rocking ship and sheer exhaustion forcing an early bed time, I had slept like a babe and woke up feeling fully rested (an odd feeling when your usual night’s sleep vacillates between four to six hours a night).

I sat on the balcony and watched as we pulled into La Romana. The sun was breaking through the clouds, promising a chance at a sunny beach day and while sun in the morning means relatively nothing in the Caribbean, where it can literally go from scorching rays of hot sun to torrential rain in a matter of minutes (and where the rain can disappear into parting clouds just as quickly), it’s a better start than waking up to rain.

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Mom and Stephanie woke up after we had docked, and we hastily threw on our beach gear, grabbed our bags and headed upstairs for breakfast.

Breaking news: I opted for arepas and coffee.

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((Spoiler alert: I’m pretty sure I had arepas for breakfast every day. In an effort to keep things fresh, I took pictures of them in a different angle or filter every day))

We grabbed a couple of boxes of cereal on our way out of the Lido Marketplace and headed out towards the parking lot to meet our excursion. While produce is a no-go to take off the ship because it breaks agricultural laws, pre-packaged food like the grab and go cereal boxes are kosher to take off the ship and make for great snacks on long excursions. A mariachi band and some dancers performed for the crowds of people walking off the ship, which was a welcome change of pace from the legions of photogs harassing you to take your picture like you’re Angelina Jolie the second you step off the ship.

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Most shore excursions booked through the ship will meet in the parking lot, not at the pier, and the parking lot is a short uphill hike from the ship (a walk that takes no longer than six or seven minutes, but should be taken into account when planning how much time you’ll need to get to your tour). Thankfully, there will be nothing in your way up to the parking lot to distract you because there is literally nothing at the port. Not a single shop nor a restaurant nor a bar. Not a single smoothie shop with overpriced wi-fi or a local hocking generically produced merchandise emblazoned with the island’s name. There’s an information desk, but that’s it. The Dufrey that used to stand in an open-air stand is no longer and while it looked like they were doing some kind of construction at the pier, the area is too small for it to be anything substantial. With that, you need to go into La Romana with some kind of idea of what you want to do because this isn’t the kind of port where you wing it. There’s nothing at the pier and there’s nothing within the immediate area except for an athletic facility with a track and a couple of baseball diamonds and a couple of small homes. If you’re not booked on an excursion(through a ship or privately) or an all inclusive package, your options are limited to staying on a ship or hopping in a cab to a nearby town (but please don’t ask the cab driver to take you to Santo Domingo, because that is hours away and will yield quite the cab fare). There is nothing to walk to, nothing to explore and no where to go within walking distance from the ship.

We booked the same excursion we had gone on the year before, the Bayahibe Beach Break. I still fight for the Santo Domingo City Tour, Stephanie still fights back that an eight hour excursion (with half of that time devoted to driving to and from Santo Domingo) sounds miserable, she wins, I lose, we go to the beach. We headed to meet our tour a half hour before the call time on our tickets because we knew from our previous time on this excursion that there was a half hour or so bus ride to the Bayahibe area and we’re still got PTSD from that time we were in Belize and we were the last two people shoved on our tour bus and we ended up sitting separately with stranger families in the back of the bus next to the bathroom. We almost always try to get to our excursions early now just to ensure we’re not sitting next to bathrooms. Or with other people’s families. It’s never comfortable when people are reaching over you to hand things back and forth to grams and Aunt Sue across the aisle.

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The ride to the Bayahibe area is relatively quick, due in large part to the proximity of the port to the highway. Our driver was sure to point out the Rio Chavon as we passed over it, but as he attempted to get into the history of the country, his mic cut out, ending the bonus trivia session.

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The tour wasn’t much different from the year before – we pulled up to the BeLive resort and were promptly handed wristbands, non-alcoholic welcome drinks and towels before we were escorted out to the pool and beach areas, where we’d have full use of both for the duration of our excursion.

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The BeLive resort is an all-inclusive resort, and sprawls across a large piece of land. The rooms are scattered in dozens of smaller buildings along the path that leads out to a large pool area (with a swim up bar and a volleyball net) and a beach.

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While most of the people on our tour opted to grab lounge chairs down by the beach, we opted to sit poolside under a palapa since that gave us quick access to the pool and swim up bar (where all drinks were included in our excursion package, but a language barrier between the bartenders and most of the patrons kept service slow).

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It was a beautiful day for a water excursion, but unfortunately, the perfect weather was just slightly hampered by the fact that the grounds weren’t as well-kept as they had been the year before. The water had a lot of floating debris (some is to be expected when people are going in between the pool and the ocean, but the amount made me question whether or not the filters in the pool were working), the beach was littered with kelp and sea glass and to make the experience a bit less comfortable, there was a wasp making the rounds flying around our palapa and a lizard that kept ducking in between our lounge chairs. It definitely wasn’t the experience it was the year before, but our disappointment was grounded in the memories. The resort is still lovely, the beach is still beautiful and it’s still a worthwhile consideration for anyone looking for an all-inclusive experience.

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We had about three and a half hours at the resort, but we headed back early because it’s a bit of a walk and we wanted to explore the grounds a little bit.

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It was a quick ride back to the ship to end the excursion and with nothing in the port area to explore, we made our way straight towards the gangway.

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We grabbed lunch on the Lido deck before heading back to the room, and a burger from Guy’s had never tasted so good.

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My camera and I spent some quality time on the balcony while I waited for my turn in the shower. It’s interesting how…unspoiled…La Romana seems and how a steady flow of cruise ship passengers hasn’t commercialized the immediate area surrounding the pier. There are houses and a town and a highway…it’s not rural by any means…but there’s been no effort put into capitalizing on the tourism.

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A shower, a nap and a couple of hours later and we were already headed out towards the open seas.

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We took a walk around the ship before heading to dinner and found the ship decked out for Halloween. We’ve done Halloween cruises for the past three or four years and there’s a nostalgic kind of excitement being on a cruise ship for Halloween. Between the decorations and the festivities, it makes for a super fun Halloween party.

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After a lap around the Lanai deck to marvel at the decorations, we headed down for a dinner that spanned nearly two and a half hours and was frustratingly slow. The food was great, no complaints there, but the meal took an exorbitantly long time and I suspect the reason was that our servers wanted to avoid making multiple trips to the galley, so they tried to pace out all of their tables. While this works in a traditional cruise dining experience with fixed dining times, in a dynamic dining environment where passengers dine at different times, it leads to a poorly paced experience that is either too rapid or too drawn out. And as delicious as the food was (enchiladas and the Bitter and Blanc are amongst my favorite Carnival dishes), it would have been just more delicious served in the span of an hour.

Fried Shrimp
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Fried Vegetable Spring Rolls
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Fresh Fruit Cocktail
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Chilled Peach Cream Soup
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Caesar Salad
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Pasta Marinara
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Grilled Flat Iron Steak from USDA Choice Beef
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Black Bean and Vegetable Enchiladas
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Bitter and Blanc
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Warm Chocolate Melting Cake
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With dinner eating well into our evening, we didn’t have time to do much else but stop back at the room to grab a bottle of wine and head up to the Ovation to see The Brits.

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The Ovation was packed a half hour before showtime, and the show began with some British trivia (but no Bingo. In fact, there hadn’t been a single round of Bingo played thus far, which was kind of bizarre given how much Carnival CD’s loveeeeee their Bingo). Unfortunately, the trivia was more entertaining than the show, which barely touched the 30 minute mark. Beyond all of my gripes with the animatronic sets, cheesy graphics and bizarre usage of cartoon characters throughout the set, perhaps the biggest gripe of all with the Funship 2.0 shows is that the shows are much shorter. Ticket to Ride, the Beatles tribute show with the non 2.0 “upgrades” (read: the show has real sets, a live band and a full dance troupe) is nearly an hour. And has glow sticks. Just saying.

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We had some time to spare before the Liars Club began (which is pretty much my favorite entertainment program on the seas), but between the wine and the heavy rocking of the ship (…again…), we fell asleep watching 19 Kids and Counting (or are they in the 20s yet? 21 Kids and Counting? Nancy Grace wasn’t showing so we went for the next best/worst thing). And between the wine and the nightly rocking of the waves turning the ship into the world’s largest rocking chair, I was feeling the most rested I can remember.

Today’s Lido Lunch Menus:

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Today’s Lido Dinner Menus:

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