I have a confession to make. Up until mid-December, I had never been on a cruise to the Caribbean. I wasn’t a total cruise newbie. I cruised from Vancouver to Anchorage back in 2006, but so much has changed since then. And really, it’s impossible to compare an Alaska cruise to a Caribbean cruise. Hello, waterslides.
So when I had the opportunity to sail on the brand new Carnival Vista with two of my kids, I was on board. It was a five-day cruise out of Miami with stops in the Dominican Republic (Amber Cove) and Turks & Caicos (Grand Turk).
I really didn’t know what to expect from a big ship cruise, and to be honest, I’m still confused by some things, like why you need to pay extra for soda (fortunately, my kids and I don’t drink sodas). Also, why do you check in for dinner on one deck when your restaurant is on an entirely different deck?
Here are 13 things I learned on-board a cruise:
1. It’s better to go to the waterpark on port days.
Our first day at sea, Carnival WaterWorks (the on-ship waterpark) was a total madhouse. Kids everywhere. Fast forward to our first port day and it was empty. We got there at 9 am and had the waterslides all to ourselves. We went to the port in the afternoon as everyone else was walking back on the ship.
2. You will eat ice cream with every meal (even breakfast).
One of the perks of a Carnival cruise is that soft serve ice cream is available 24-hours a day. Of course, that meant that we stopped for a cone after every meal. And then we got ice cream as a between-meals snack, too. On the second half of the cruise, we literally had ice cream several times a day.
3. Mini golf is easy, free fun on a sea day.
On the top deck, there’s a nine-hole mini golf course. Despite there being, I don’t know, a few thousand passengers on-board, we never had any trouble getting on the greens. It’s free to play and it was a great way to pass the time, especially before and after dinner. If you want to spend money, bowling is $2 a game.
4. It’s okay to drop your kids off at Camp Ocean.
I felt bad at first dropping my kids off at the on-ship kids’ club (Camp Ocean). However, I quickly learned that my kids would rather be at the kids’ club than walking around the port with me. They loved meeting other kids, playing video games and all the arts and crafts. Well, there you go.
5. You’ll want to wake up for a sunrise.
I love a sunrise and I’m totally willing to wake up early to see the sunrise. Nearly every morning of our sail I woke up early to get up to the outdoor track for a walk or a run just before sunrise. It was seven times around to equal a mile, but I didn’t mind seeing the same views over and over.
6. The family scavenger hunt on the last day is a must-do.
On the last night of our sail, Camp Ocean held a Family Digital Hunt, a scavenger hunt that required each family to read clues, do different activities (e.g., go down the waterslide at WaterWorks, start a conga line) and document it all in photos. So much fun. It really was one of the cruise highlights for me.
7. You don’t want to attempt the ropes course on a sea day.
On the very top deck (even higher than the top deck), there’s a ropes course (SkyCourse). We’ve done several ropes courses and love them. However, my advice to you is to save the ropes course for a port day. We went on an at-sea day and it was way too windy, which made it much less fun.
8. Save dining faves for port days.
There’s always a line on the Lido Deck for Guy’s Burger Joint, but the lines are somewhat shorter on port days (though the hours are limited on port days). We went a couple of nights for dinner just before it closed to avoid the super long lines. Don’t even bother getting a burger on the first day of the sail.
9. Pay attention to excursion details before you book.
In Grand Turk, we got off the ship for a sail on a catamaran and a snorkeling adventure. The catamaran was just steps away from the port and it was a short sail to the reef, so it was perfect. At Amber Cove, some friends booked an excursion that involved a bumpy 90-minute bus ride to the destination. No thanks.
10. “Cruise Elegant” is neither elegant nor required.
Each day of the cruise you’ll receive a FunTimes activity guide that outlines all of the day’s activities, the hours of all the restaurants and entertainment highlights. It also lets cruisers know the attire for the night, either Cruise Casual or Cruise Elegant. I was nervous about Cruise Elegant night but it’s not formal gowns and it’s also not required if you want to eat at a quick-service restaurant, like Guy’s Burger Joint. Phew.
11. A cruise port may be just a stop to get off the boat.
I thought each port would be a stop at a cute town, a place to explore the history and culture of the island, but that’s not necessarily true. Amber Cove, for example, has a swimming pool, ziplines and a handful of stores. It’s also where you depart for excursions. But it’s not a town or a place worth exploring.
12. Some of restaurants on the ship have upcharges.
I honestly thought that a cruise ship was a floating all-inclusive. That’s mostly the case. Many restaurants on-board are included, but others require an extra fee of $15 or $25 per person, like Bonsai Sushi and Cuban Bites. Fortunately, the FunTimes is good about noting which ones require you to plunk down extra cash.
13. Cruise ship staff love making towel animals.
Every night after dinner you’ll find a towel on one of the beds in your stateroom transformed into an elephant or a monkey or a bear. On the third morning of the cruise, there were towel animals on every deck chair across the Lido Deck. Seriously, so cute.
Disclaimer: My kids and I were guests of Carnival on board the five-day Carnival Vista sail. However, I was not compensated for this article and all opinions expressed here are my own.