After a long weekend of...sleeping (I’ve been working 90+ hour weeks for the past month!) and shopping, and a work day that was less than 14 hours, I'm finally ready to get down to writing about this trip!
So for a while now, Mom has been talking about how she wanted to visit St. Lucia and Aruba. We tried to visit St. Lucia a few years ago, but our trip was diverted because of propulsion problems on the Miracle, and we just never got around to visiting Aruba. Every time we’d look at an Aruba cruise, another cruise would win out. But one day in the late summer, when we started looking at pricing our annual Halloween Disney trip, we realized that the prices for cruises over Halloween week had plummeted and an eight-night southern Caribbean cruise was significantly less expensive than five nights in Disney World. And we’ve gone to Disney World a lot in the past five years. We’re a little Disney’ed out.
This trip offered us a few things…a chance to try out the Breeze, which is Carnival’s newest and biggest ship, a chance to get back to Carnival after a really fantastic trip on the Allure of the Seas and match Carnival and Royal Caribbean up more compatibly (and in a more timely way) and a chance to visit two new ports we’ve never been to before (Aruba and Curacao), as well as one we’re incredibly familiar with (Grand Turk) and another that we haven’t visited since our very first cruise (La Romana).
Stephanie did most of the planning on this one. I’d look excursions and points of interest in between meetings, or when I’d get home early enough from work, but she really took the reigns on it since my workload increased as we approached the holiday season. And since I was wedging this cruise into the week before holiday madness really picked up at work, our normal three/four day pre-cruise vacation was truncated to a one day pre-cruise jaunt to South Florida (no one was more bummed than me!).
I took off an extra day from work before the cruise to rest up. I have unlimited vacation days (which is probably why I put up with the long hours I have to put in at work!), and since we didn’t have our typical pre-vacation vacation, I wanted to get as much rest in as I could before we left. So my work week ended on Wednesday. I left work at 7, ran back to my apartment to throw out the trash and grab everything I forgot to pack (Stephanie came down to visit the week before to help me pack and take my suitcase home so I could go to the airport with Mom since she lives closer to O’Hare than I do, and a 2:30 am trip on the Blue line with way too much luggage didn’t sound too appealing).
A bus ride to Union Station and a quick ride on the Metra later, and I was back home. Mom had takeout waiting for me and Stephanie and I had a marathon of Don’t Trust the B while she gave me a manicure and we did some last minute planning.
I ended up staying up far later than I wanted to trying to finish up my Allure review and the next morning, despite my best attempts to sleep in, I was up bright and early. And despite my boss telling me not to open my laptop…I did some checking in with work to make sure everything was running smoothly in my absence before running the errands I should have run the week before: grab cash from the bank, grab the last parts of my Halloween costume from the costume store, run to Target for the lipstick I forgot to pack and then I met Stephanie for lunch. A few more errands, a nap later and a late dinner and I was still not done packing. And despite our early morning flight meaning an even earlier wake up time mirrors my often bed time, I decided to watch Grey’s Anatomy and finish my Allure review before finishing my packing. And then I went to bed at 1:00 am.
And set my alarm for 2:20 am.
It felt like by the time my eyes closed, my phone exploded to the chorus of Tik Tok and it was time to get up. I managed half a cup of coffee before the cab showed up at 3:00 am. We were at O’Hare at 3:30 am. And I was texting Stephanie frantically because I forgot to kiss the mezuzah when I left and I was convinced I jinxed our flight so I needed her to do it for us. Superstitions. We all have them.
Fun fact: despite being one of the largest airports in the world, O’Hare does, in fact, close. And if you arrive the recommended two hours before your 5:30 am flight, there will be no Skycap to check your bags curbside and no one to check you in inside. TSA isn’t open for screenings. Starbucks isn’t open for coffee. O’Hare actually closes.
Two agents appeared to begin check-ins around 3:45 am. Our agent didn’t charge us for our luggage. She didn’t even weigh the suitcase I spent a solid half hour relocating clothes and shoes from (and into Stephanie’s extra suitcases – she was flying first class and was able to bring three suitcases at no charge) to bring it down from 52.7 pounds to 48.2. I offered her my credit card and she told me that if she didn’t ask for it, I shouldn’t offer it. Touche. I wasn’t sure if she saw the bags under my eyes and pitied me or if, more likely, she saw we were flying first class on the way home and decided not to charge us (this has happened to Stephanie before when she flew first class one way).
I had plenty of time to ponder a laundry list of why a check-in agent working at 3:45 in the morning was so generous while I waited for TSA to open 45 minutes later. Mom is somehow now TSA pre-approved, but I’m not (PRE-APPROVE ME, TSA!), and she decided to wait in the longer line with me than breeze through her own abbreviated line. I think she misses me too much. Anyways, we were towards the front of a very long line, so we got through pretty quickly. Thankfully, the rest of the airport was opening up. Starbucks, McDonalds and the bookstore in the American Airlines terminal were already open. Mom grabbed us a quick breakfast and we barely had time to finish before boarding started.
And boarding? It was a mess. We usually opt to sit in the front of the economy section, which usually brings an extra fee, but that extra fee allows us Group 1 boarding. Stephanie, in some random research she was doing on Seat Guru, found out that in Row 17 of some of American’s planes, the middle seat is blocked off (the reason being that they have to staff a certain number of flight attendants per seats and blocking off those seats allow them to staff one less FA per flight), and she booked us in those. Booking in Row 17 gave us, like, Group 2 or 3 boarding. And that would have been fine if the gate agents knew what they were doing. “First class is now boarding! Now priority! Now Group 4! Now Group 1! Ruby/Executive/Platinum!” And right when we figured we’d be called…they called guests with only one carry-on. And they tried to specify a non-stowed one, but that didn’t stop anyone from trying to walk on with a rolling suitcase. You’re not fooling anyone, friends. That suitcase clearly won’t be sitting with your feet.
We finally boarded and got our carry-on’s stowed. I mentioned above how we usually fly in the seats up front. The reason they cost more (on American) is they offer extra leg room. I don’t think I’ve flown in a non-premium seat since I was on a high school choir trip in 2002 and it took awhile to adjust to the lack of leg room. There was no room to move, no room to stand, nada…and I have short legs! The extra seat between me and Mom made it a little better, though – we had a bit more room to stretch out.
Regardless of the lack of leg room, our flight took off only a few minutes behind schedule and we had a pretty smooth take off. The person in front of me turned around to ask if I was okay with him reclining, which I thought was incredibly classy and polite. The skies were smooth and we were treated to a gorgeous view of the sunrise as we jetted towards Miami.
I can’t sleep on airplanes without Dramamine (I didn’t figure out mine was expired until I was at the terminal, so no airplane naps for me), so I ponied up for some overpriced internet time and watched the in-flight NBC entertainment. We Facetime’d with Stephanie before she left for work (we’d meet up that night – she was flying in after work) and when we were closer to Miami, I went through my airplane beauty routine – after all, we only had a day in Florida and we were going to hit the ground running!
And hit the ground running we did – the landing was pretty rough. We came down pretty hard and very fast. We thanked the pilots as we got off the plane and headed out into MIA (which was much bigger than I remembered!).
There’s a long walk to the baggage claim from the terminal and the luggage took awhile to come out. I took the time to switch from my flats into my flip flops. Goodbye, Chicago cold and helloooooooo Miami heat!
If you fly into Miami with a lot of luggage (we each had a full sized piece of luggage and another piece stowed) and you’re renting a car, if it’s feasible, you might want to leave some of your family at arrivals with the luggage while the other gets the car because it’s a long way to the car rental center. Like, at least six moving walkways and a tram ride. It was exhausting.
The line for the rental car was ridiculously long. I sat with the luggage while Mom stood in line. By the time she got to the front, they were out of full sized SUV’s (which we had reserved online), so they upgraded us to a minivan. We loaded the trunk up and, since we couldn’t check into the hotel until that afternoon, headed to Boca for some shopping!
Mom and I did another tour-de-my-childhood-winters to start our morning: bagels and coffee at Einstein and then shopping down Glades while Mom pointed out every place grandma used to take me to when I was little.
After a morning in Boca, we headed out to Sunrise to hit up the outlets. There was some big fashion event going on (we’re talking food and champagne tents, a runway show hosted by George Kotsiopolous and a slew of sales). Two handbags and a pair of shoes later and I wasn’t sure if I was making really awesome or really awful decisions, but I wasn’t going to question it – I’m on vacation!
We grabbed lunch at Grand Lux and did some last-minute shopping at Target for the necessities we didn’t pack (a case of Diet Coke for Mom and Stephanie, a six pack of Vitamin Water Zero’s for me and a bottle of wine for all of us) and then Mom and I headed to Miami to check into our hotel just before 5.
I’ve written often before that I like to use Priceline for short stays and that I can often tinker with the zoning and star rating enough to get the hotels I want. It didn’t work for, I think, the first time in a long time. I was trying to get us into the Intercontinental and we ended up at the Trump. Part of my Priceline process is to research each hotel I can possibly bid into for a zone and category in the instance that there’s one that’s just so bad that we’d rather book a hotel directly than chance our bid being accepted at an undesirable or low-rated hotel, so we knew what we were getting into. The reason we didn’t want the Trump from the get-go is that it’s undergoing a massive, resort-wide renovation and it’s affected many of their recent reviews on TripAdvisor. For a one-night stay, though, we’d survive.
Part of the renovation process requires that each guest be driven via resort van or golf cart to and from the reception area and their room, and having to wait for pickup proved to often be time consuming. And while the grounds are stunning and show a lot of promise, I thought the rooms weren’t as luxurious as one would think a place holding the Trump name would be. They were large, though, and we had a private verandah. I think this could be a top notch resort once renovations are complete and guests are free to wander on their own.
Mom and I napped for awhile and then tried to figure out how we wanted to work our evening. Since we didn’t have quick or easy access to the car (parking and valet are both near the main lodge, which requires an escorted ride to and from), we didn’t want to go out for dinner and then come back and then go out again to pick up Stephanie at the airport. It seemed easier to just go out and stay out.
Our first stop was the Dolphin Mall and, funny story, it was this mall we visited when we first went to Miami for our first pre-cruise vacation back in 2004. We had been staying in Downtown Miami and the concierge told us about this really amazing outlet mall that was “easily accessible” by public transportation, so the four of us headed out into the world of Miami public transit (which is neither quick nor easy nor very accessible, especially in the days before iPhone’s and bus tracker apps). It took us what felt like hours to get there, but the shopping was amazing (and I still think back to this pair of Prada sandals I saw and decided against buying on my college student working as a camp counselor for the summer income and regret not buying them!). So it really was like a blast from the past walking back into this mall.
Mom and I window shopped for awhile and decided to move the car closer to the restaurants so we could grab dinner at TGI Friday’s, but there was literally not a single parking spot anywhere near the dining. So we drove over to the nearby International Mall, which didn’t really have many dining options. We ended up at BJ’s Brewhouse, which is a chain that’s located mostly in Florida and offered a large menu and seemed to play Game 7 of last year’s NBA Finals on a constant loop. The food was good enough to compensate for their poor choices in old basketball footage.
We tried to drag out our dinner for as long as we could so we wouldn’t have to go back to the hotel only to have to head out again to pick up Stephanie. Her flight was delayed a bit, but managed to land on time just before midnight. Reunited, we headed back to the hotel. With no energy left to repack our stuff and deciding we’d just be unpacking it again once we were on the ship the next day, we just headed to bed.