In the spring of 2003, the travel industry was still trying to bounce back from the repercussions of 9/11. People were gun-shy about the safety travel. My intrepid travel buddy – Lisa—and I were not. We were both seniors in college. I was at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and she was at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. For the first time in our four years in college, our spring breaks were scheduled for the same week.
We began to plan our escape.
As we were college students, we were poor. We were both also starting graduate school in June and were trying to find a decent place to live together (bless her soul for living with me), this meant our trip had to be inexpensive.
We found a heck of a deal! For both of us, a three-day cruise with airfare for $1500 total. That was just tax refund money! We were in.
We would fly to Miami and sail to Key West and then Cozumel, have a day at sea, and return to port. We departed on St. Patrick’s Day of 2003 and arrived to a festoon of spring breakers and older clientele boarding the ship.
Lisa had cruised before, but this was my first experience aboard a cruise ship. We waved good-bye and shouted “Bon Voyage” as we were pulled away from the dock.
We made our way to our cabin, and soon discovered part of the reason our Spring Break had been so affordable. We were on the bottom floor of the residential cabins…directly next to the engine room. We barely had time to focus on this miniscule detail before we were whisked off to the deck for the lifeboat drill. I was not aware that this was something one had to do. Every day. (Or at least, there was one held every day).
We were finally able to begin exploring the ship…and of course we started with the dining room. I had always heard about how food aboard cruise ships was amazing…and it was okay, but it was mass-produced food. I was also slightly underwhelmed by the fact that, as a senior in college, having a drink was so costly. But I was soon over it and we were off to enjoy the nightlife of the ship.
As the two hip, young travelers that we were: this consisted of seeing a show and then retiring to our luxurious cabin to sleep and found the excitement of the Bow Cam to almost make up for the lack of window in our wall.
The Bow Cam, at night, has one little light that shines in a screen of black.
But, when we opened our eyes the next morning, the Bow Cam showed Key West! We were up and ready to explore as we disembarked the ship. What we found were a lot of touristy shops. There were restaurants too…but our time was short and there was free food on the ship. So we proceeded to follow the handy little map that was provided to us on the ship to all of the free deals we could receive from our walking tour of Key West.
On our way, we did manage to walk by Ernest Hemmingway’s house. (Score one for the English major). I also learned that he was the first person on the island to have a pool. I learned this by standing outside the gate and listening to the tour going on inside. Five years later, I would return to Key West with my husband and we would actually pay to take the tour.
Finally, for breakfast, we had Key Lime pie…because how can you go to Key West and not have Key Lime Pie?
Back aboard the ship, we decided to entertain ourselves by attending an art auction.
The only reason we attended? For the free booze, obviously. Chad, our art buddy, just happened to be a solid addition to that experience.
Then, I discovered, the Casino.
I am not a gambler, and I believe that it was all slots aboard the ship. I don’t know because the only thing I had eyes for was GOLD COAST! It was one of those games where you drop in a quarter, almost like Plinko on The Price is Right and then watch as the additional quarter either does or does not push the other quarters over the edge, where you win the coins and more chances to play again. Having this game aboard the ship had a double bonus – sometimes the boat would rock and the quarters would just fall down. If I checked back periodically – I could play for free.
Our second day we had schemes in store.
Our ship was docking at Cozumel, but my friend’s parents were staying on the mainland—just a ferry ride away—in Playa Del Carmen. After crunching our poor college student numbers, we realized that if we paid to take the ferry to Playa Del Carmen we would be able to eat and drink for free with her folks.
It was on. We had researched the very tight time schedule for when the boat would dock and when the ferry would leave. We also had to take into account our return ferry to ensure that we weren’t stranded without our cruise ship.
We were jostling to get off and made our way speedily toward the ferry ticket station as the rest of the college revelers made their way ashore to various drinking establishments. We were able to elbow our way to exchange our money for pesos and in some way managed to barter our tickets in order to board the first ferry that was leaving. It’s Mexico, that stuff happens.
Arriving in Playa Del Carmen, we had no clue where to find her parents. Their address was a palapa on the beach. We wandered back and forth across the sand, and finally managed to make our way to THEIR little hammock far down the beach. It was a day that was working in our favor. It continued that way as Mama and Papa decided to treat us to Carlos and Charlies for lunch and drinks.
And when I say drinks…I mean the Big Mama Margarita. It was a 34-ounce frozen, lime drink served in basically a bowl with stemware. We sat on the beach with her parents, drinking out of yard glasses, and swilled the booze.
Before we were to catch our ferry back to Cozumel to meet up with our ship, we thought we had better take a swim in the ocean, since we were floating on it for three days. If you have ever gone swimming in the ocean and felt the sand shift beneath you and grasped for your footing…well multiply that times fifty. That was swimming in the ocean after the Big Mama.
We said adios after the swim and ventured aboard the ferry for the relatively quick trip to Cozumel. It was here that I made Lisa take a picture of me reenacting a scene from a Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys Super Mystery that I had read when I was younger. Nancy was on Cozumel and left chloroformed on the beach. So, I pretended to be chloroformed and lay passed out on the sand. No one seemed to notice anything amiss except the feral dogs that came to either see if I had food, or make me into food.
Luckily, we had to run to catch our ship and didn’t wait to find out.
Waking up lazily after two days of running for excursions, our day aboard ship began. I used the gym before we headed to the pool. There were a few other people who thought that they would also head to the pool on that day too. We found a table in the shade and ordered a bucket of beer and fries. Sun, beer, and fries? That was a good day.
I was working on my senior paper at that point, and had several books that I was reading in my pursuit of Fisher King information in the Arthurian Legend. I had kept The Once and Future King for the trip, as it was almost light and fun. It was light and fun in comparison to Tennyson and Malory that is. By the time the beer and the fries were gone, it was almost time for what would be the highlight of our day.
The Chocolate Buffett.
All chocolate. Perhaps you are beginning to understand why I worked out that morning.
As if Beers and Fries and Chocolate Buffett weren’t enough, we still had our dinner that evening. We were seated with a family that had an approximately seven-year old son. A sassy son, I would add. Though not rude, he was not afraid to hassle someone back. This was aimed primarily at me. I was, I am sure asking for it in some way, but he convinced the waiters that it was my birthday and they sang to me as we dined that evening.
Our dinner was brought to a close quickly with the onset of the final show of the entire voyage. Ricky, our host from the first night’s show, was back again and tearfully sending us on our way before the magician took the stage.
My new best friend from dinner was seated with the rest of the Kid’s Club participants. And after the show, I decided that it was a super good idea to go and embarrass the little sass-monkey by kissing him in front of his new friends. As I approached him, the boat hit a wave and tilted and the two of us went crashing into the floor with me on top.
I was lucky I wasn’t arrested as a pedophile.
Had I been wearing the outfit that I changed into that night for the Luau dance…I most definitely would have been detained at sea for it. My mother and father had returned right before we left from a trip to Hawaii. My mother bought me a lovely Hawaiian outfit made up of basically a halter top and then a wrap skirt. She bought it for me to wear on the cruise.
Obviously, crazy going out ensembles weren’t particularly necessary for the two old ladies that we were. However, our last night aboard, we decided we would go dancing at the club on board. In my outfit.
What we found were a lot of crazy college kids, a fact that did not escape us despite the fact that we were ourselves technically college kids. Lisa met a new boyfriend that night. He was very stylish, he wore a paper hat and enjoyed sticking his tongue out all the time. That relationship didn’t go any farther than that one dance.
Finally, we hit the hay one last time in our berth with the glow of the bow cam illuminating us the next morning to our arrival in Miami. With several hours to kill until we flew home, we booked our only excursion with the ship company.
We were going to ride airboats around the Everglades in search of alligators, like the crocodile hunter. We even had styling earplugs that made all of our pictures look as though we had ears of bright green, miniature corn sticking out.
Our hunt was successful and we saw two alligators in the Everglades. But, just in case the tour failed to accomplish that task, we ended our excursion at an alligator museum. With just a bunch of alligators. In what looked like a pig pen. It was not so impressive as it sounds.
As we flew home that evening, we congratulated ourselves on surviving yet another trip where only shoe beating was involved to solve disagreements. It was, a success.