Our 20th Anniversary Cruise (April 5 – 15, 2023)

Although we had celebrated each of our previous 19 wedding anniversaries, we had not really done anything particularly memorable since our 5th anniversary trip to Hawaii.  This year, we decided to celebrate our 20th anniversary in a big way.  After considering various options, we chose a 9-day Caribbean cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas, leaving from Galveston, TX.  The cruise had stops in the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Belize, and two ports in Mexico.

On Wednesday, April 5th, we left our rig in Kerrville and drove 315 miles to Galveston.  We departed at 9:45 am with the goal of avoiding Houston’s rush hour traffic.  The weather was quite windy and we had rain for the last half of the drive.  We hit the outskirts of Houston at 2:45 pm and immediately ran into heavy traffic that we fought for the next two hours.  The GPS didn’t help, calling for several multi-lane crossovers in short distances in bumper-to-bumper traffic.  After a couple of stops in Galveston, we reached the Best Western Plus hotel at 5:45 pm.  Our room was very nice, with a view of the gulf.  We had selected this hotel because we could park our car there for free for the duration of our cruise, saving us over $150, even after paying for taxis to and from the ship.

On Thursday, we checked out of the hotel at noon and took a taxi to the ship.  After checking our luggage and clearing security, we boarded the ship.  Although access to our stateroom wasn’t available until 2 pm, we were able to sneak in and drop off our carry-ons.  We spent the next two hours exploring the ship.  It started to rain at 3 pm and the Sail Away Party at 4 pm had to be held under cover.  We headed to dinner at 5:30 and had a table for 10 all to ourselves.  This would continue to be the case for the rest of the cruise, with the exception of one night when another couple joined us.  After a prime rib dinner (Jan had escargot as her starter), we attended the Welcome Aboard Show, starring comedian JR McCollom.  We learned that the ship had a crew of 900 from 52 countries, taking care of 2,200 passengers.  After watching a game show, we were ready to call it a day by 9 pm.

Day 2 of the cruise was spent at sea.  After breakfast, Phil played pickleball on the sports court on Deck 12.  High winds made the games rather challenging.  Jan attended the Shore Excursions Talk and we met later to attend the Caribbean Port and Shopping Show.  We then watched the World’s Sexiest Man Competition by the pool.  Although almost all of the contestants were young studs, the winner was a 35-year-old with five kids.  After lunch, we headed back to our room for a brief nap.  We then played three games of Bingo but didn’t win.  After our Dress to Impress dinner, we headed to the theater for a performance by Mo5aic, a 5-man a cappella group who both sang and vocalized the sounds of a wide range of musical instruments.  Our final activity for the day was round one of the Adult Karaoke Superstar competition.  Three winners from the field of 13 contestants were selected to advance to the Finals on the last night of the cruise.

Day 3 was spent in Cozumel, Mexico.  We disembarked at 9:20 am and headed to the All-Inclusive VIP Dolphin Encounter at Dolphinaris Cozumel.  We spent 40 minutes with marine mammal specialists who led us onto a shallow submerged platform to interact with two dolphins, a 5-year-old female named Aria and a 4-year-old male named Leo.  After getting to rub their bellies and backs, we each shook hands with the dolphins, got them to spin using our hand signals, and received kisses on our cheeks.  After leaving the water, we received an a la carte lunch.  Upon our return to the ship, we had dinner and then attended the evening show with musical and dance performances.

Day 4 was Easter Sunday and we spent the day in George Town, Grand Cayman.  Since there was no dock in George Town, the ship moored offshore, and we had to take a 15-minute tender boat ride to the port.  We had not signed up for an excursion but were immediately approached by some people hawking a tour of Grand Cayman.  When others from our ship signed up for the tour, we decided to join them.  As the tour guide drove the van around the island, we learned a great deal about Grand Cayman.  Although Grand Cayman is only 72 square miles in size, it is the largest of the three Cayman Islands.  Grand Cayman is home to 600 financial institutions and is considered the fifth largest financial district in the world.  Residents of the Cayman Islands pay no income or property taxes and, according to the driver, there is no crime.  The Caymans are still a British territory, with a governor (largely a ceremonial role) appointed by the British.  We stopped briefly at the Governor’s House.  Our next stop was Hell.  This bizarre rock formation is millions of years old.  In spite of its volcanic appearance, it is actually limestone and dolomite rock, eroded by algae.  The name “Hell” is said to have evolved a long time ago when a British commissioner was touring the island.  It is alleged that he took one look at this site and exclaimed, “My God, this must be what hell looks like.”  The site then forever became known as “Hell.” 

We next stopped at the Tortuga Rum Distillery and sampled rum and rum cakes.  We then spent 30 minutes at Dolphin Encounter but, although we were able to see a lot of dolphins, there were no guests in the water due to it being Easter.  Next, we were dropped off for an hour at Seven Mile Beach.  We enjoyed swimming in the warm Caribbean water and laying out in the sun.  After returning to the ship, we got cleaned up and headed to dinner.  We then watched the Perfect Couples Game Show, in which three couples competed in various events which were hilarious to watch.  Our last activity for the day was Round 2 of the Adult Karaoke Superstar competition, where another three contestants advanced to the Finals.

Day 5 brought us to Falmouth, Jamaica.  After having an early breakfast, we left the ship for our 5-hour excursion, titled “Go Native, Jamaica.”  The excursion began with a long ride in an air-conditioned motorcoach to Montego Bay, during which our tour guides provided lots of information about Jamaica’s culture, history and cuisine.  After driving past the fine all-inclusive resorts that line the bay, we turned inland and began to see how the less affluent Jamaicans live.  Since we had honeymooned in Jamaica, this wasn’t totally surprising, but it was definitely different than the wealth we had seen the previous day in Grand Cayman.  Our first stop was at the 248-year-old St. James Parish Church.  We viewed the ornate stained-glass windows, 18th century sculptures and numerous memorial plaques dedicated to local dignitaries.  The church continues to operate but, after COVID, is down to 150 active members. 

Our next stop was at Mt. Olive Basic School, a private school with 72 students, ages 3 – 7.  Although school was closed for the Easter holiday, several local students sang for us and the faculty showed us through the schoolhouse.  The classrooms were quite cramped but somehow they manage. 

Our final stop for the day was at the Johns Hall Plantation, a bird feeding sanctuary.  Upon exiting our bus, we were able to sample coconut milk and sugar cane.  We then had a buffet lunch consisting of traditional Jamaican food, including plantains and jerk pork and chicken.  Upon our return to the ship, we had another lunch, despite having had the buffet lunch, and then took naps.  After dinner, we participated in a Song Lyrics trivia contest but didn’t do very well.

Day 6 was spent at sea.  After breakfast in the Windjammer restaurant, Phil played pickleball in calmer winds for 2-1/2 hours and Jan relaxed by the pool.  After pickleball, Phil joined Jan by the pool and we watched the International Belly Flop Competition.  After lunch, we spent most of the afternoon poolside and watched the Battle of the Sexes competition there (the women won handily).  After dinner, we sat in the Centrum and listened to classical musicians.  After getting tidied up, we returned and got our anniversary portrait done.  Although our anniversary wasn’t until the following day, we knew our excursion on that day would leave us looking kind of rough for a portrait.  We then found our way to the helipad on the bow of the ship.  It was very dark but the sky was clear and there were lots of bright stars visible.

Day 7 of the cruise was April 12th, our 20th wedding anniversary.  Our ship was moored in Belize City, Belize.  We met for our excursion at 9:15 am but didn’t get access to our tender boat until 10:45. When we reached the port, we boarded a motorcoach for a 50-minute drive through the Belize River Valley.  During the ride, our tour guides provided a lot of information about the history, culture and wildlife of Belize.  We stopped for a buffet lunch at the Ayiaha Eco Park.  After lunch, we were supposed to board a speedboat, but the captain was having mechanical problems with one of the motors.  It took him about an hour to fix the problem, putting us even farther behind schedule.  Since we were on an excursion marketed by Royal Caribbean, we knew the ship would not sail without us but it was still concerning that we would delay the ship.  Once we got underway again, we got a 25-minute high-speed boat ride along the New River Lagoon.  The captain did slow down for us to see several crocodiles floating near the shore. 

The boat took us to Lamanai, once a major city of the Mayan civilization, occupied as early as 1500 BC and until the Spanish arrived in about 1500 AD.  At its peak, Lamanai (Mayan for “submerged crocodile”) had a population of 60,000.  We hiked along a trail that took us to the Jaguar Temple and the High Temple (the 3rd tallest Mayan temple in Belize).  We spotted many monkeys in the trees.  We then walked past the Ball Court.  Our guide explained how the game was played and that the captain of the winning team was sacrificed to the gods.  Since this practice runs contrary to the concept of survival of the fittest, the guide speculated that it may have contributed to the demise of the Mayan civilization.  Our final stop at Lamanai was at the 108’-tall Mask Temple.  We were permitted to climb up the side of this temple and down the front steps.  We then reboarded the speedboat and returned to Ayiaha Eco Park, where we took the bus back to the port.  The tender boat got us back to the ship by 7 pm, 1-1/2 hour after the scheduled All Aboard time.  After our late dinner, we attended Round 3 of the Adult Karaoke Superstar competition.

Day 8 of the cruise was in Costa Maya, Mexico.  The ship arrived in port around 7 am and left again by early afternoon, so our excursion was both early and short.  We woke to an alarm at 5 am, had breakfast, and met for our excursion at 7 am.  The excursion, titled “Mexican Salsa Experience and Beach Break,” had an assortment of activities.  The first was a hands-on cooking class in which we learned to make guacamole and two kinds of salsa.  We were provided a plate with all the ingredients; Phil was the chopper and Jan was the masher. 

We then listened to a lecture on tequila and enjoyed a tasting.  Our next activity was learning to dance the salsa.  Although we mastered the steps, we will need more than a little practice to perfect it.  After dancing, we headed outside to the beach and enjoyed laying in the sun and wading in the water. 

We returned to the ship around noon and headed to lunch.  After lunch, we spent time laying by the pool, then returned to our room and relaxed on our balcony.  For dinner, we wore our Dress to Impress outfits and dined on lobster tail, with molten chocolate cake for dessert.  After dinner, we went out on deck and watched the sunset.  We then participated in a Movie Director trivia contest, listened to a guitar and vocal duo, and attended a non-competitive karaoke session.  We then headed outdoors on the 11th deck for some snacks and watched the movie Top Gun: Maverick on the big screen for a while.

Day 9, the final full day of our cruise, was spent at sea.  Phil played pickleball, while Jan attended a Towel Folding Demonstration and watched the flag parade.  In the afternoon, Phil lounged by the pool and listened to music while Jan attended the art auction.  After dinner, we finished packing our suitcases and put them in the hallway for pickup.  We then attended the Farewell Variety Showcase, featuring the house orchestra, singers and dancers, followed by comedian JR McCollom who had performed on the first night of the cruise.  Our last event was the Finals of the Adult Karaoke Superstar competition, in which the nine contestants selected in the three preliminary rounds competed.  There were several very good performances, but the winner was by far the best of the night.

On Saturday, April 15, the ship arrived back in Galveston after traveling 2,300 nautical miles.  We awoke to an alarm at 6 am, had our final meal onboard and returned to our stateroom to finish packing our carry-on bags.  We were required to be out of the stateroom by 8 am but couldn’t leave the ship until 45 minutes later.  After retrieving our luggage, we got a taxi back to our car at the hotel.  The 315-mile drive back to Kerrville was uneventful; Saturday morning traffic through Houston was heavy but not as bad as when we had arrived.  We got back to Kerrville around 3 pm.

We had a wonderful time on the cruise, despite eating much more than we should have.  Although Jan had cruised with her girlfriends before, this was Phil’s first cruise.  We were both already thinking about a future cruise, certainly not waiting another 15 years to do it.

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