Yes, we finally pulled it off, the long awaited, much anticipated family Christmas Cruise. After years of talk and endless jokes about the possibility of it never happening, nine very grateful family members, boarded a ship bound for warmer weather on Christmas Eve 2011. We never looked back.
While swimming in paradise on Christmas Day, in 85 degrees of sunshine and water so clear I could see my toes, my niece Amanda and I declared that this was the best Christmas ever and began planning for 2012. I mean, the thought of spending Christmas in the cold ever again is just downright crazy.
For once, Christmas wasn’t about presents, or the drama of who would be hosting Christmas Eve. There was no last-minute shopping to do, or worries about what to cook. No dirty dishes, no wrapping paper to clean up, no returns the next day. Just a family looking to enjoy each other’s company, escape from the cold, and get some well-deserved time to relax. This cruise was a gift to ourselves and to each other and, we all agreed, the best gift of all.
For the Shappirio’s and the Wenzell’s, our trip began on Friday evening, Dec. 23rd. We packed up the back of my Dad’s pick-up truck and headed to Philadelphia where we would be spending the night at the airport Aloft hotel. Aloft, a Starwood hotel, is a smaller version of our much-loved W hotel chain. For an airport hotel, it exceeded our expectations and we spent most of our evening playing pool in the trendy bar downstairs. Actually, we spent most of our evening losing to my Dad. Who knew the guy could play pool? I certainly didn’t.
Early the next morning we did the check-in and security dance and met up with the Lew-I family for our Southwest flight to Fort Lauderdale. My love for Southwest Airlines only gets stronger every time I fly with them. They got us on the plane and in the air in record time. I tried to be strong and not let my airplane anxiety show too much, but eventually I just couldn’t hide the fact that I hate being 35,000 feet above the ground in a tightly packed flying machine. Of course, the Southwest stewardess smothered me with love and, like on all of my other Southwest flights, found ways to calm my fears. They really deserve that whole heart with wings logo they’ve got. Keep it up Southwest, I love you guys.
Once the wheels hit the runway in Florida, I breathed a long sigh of relief and announced it was “time to party”. The family strongly agreed and at once, we were off to find our luggage and make our way to the cruise port.
I can’t even describe the excitement felt when pulling into the port and seeing six enormous and luxurious cruise ships waiting for departure. We quickly pulled up in front of ours, the Grand Princess, and at that moment, I was ready to trade my Uggs for flip-flops and sail away. Our grand hotel on water looked HUGE and we wanted to board as soon as possible. Unfortunately, it’s never that simple. If you get there too early, you have a lot of waiting around to do before the ship is cleared and ready for embarkation. Best advice: pack your flip-flops in your carry on. Uggs make your feet sweat in Florida.
Once we eagerly boarded the ship and found our staterooms, we immediately found the pool deck and prepared for the sail-away party. It was great to have lunch and watch the ships around us fill up with people. By this point, we just couldn’t hide our excitement. The Christmas Cruise was finally a reality.
And then, at 4pm, we sailed off to the Bahamas…smiling.
Here’s a tough question: Would you rather spend Christmas in the cold suburbs of NJ or at an all day beach barbecue on Princess Cays in the Bahamas? While lounging on the beach with our ship off in the distance, I thought, what could be better than this? I’ve got my family, my bathing suit, the sun, and warm waters in, of all months, December. It was perfect. Aside from the minor tender boat accident on our way in, and the coral I scraped my knee on while swimming recklessly, everything was better than I could have ever imagined. Even Santa arrived via tender boat.
For most of the day, Mom, Amanda, and I explored the bright blue water, picking up coral and watching the vibrant fish swim beneath us. Every once in a while we’d see my brother-in-law float by in his well equipped tube, complete with cup holders for any beverages one might need while floating. Often we’d get out of the water and join the rest of the family, lounging up on the beach, working on their tans. When we got hungry we’d feast at the barbecue. And when we got thirsty, well, we’d just order a drink right from our lounge chairs.
Of course, we couldn’t stay on the beach forever, and ultimately, before we knew it, we had to return to our ship. Oh the pity of having to go back to our hotel on water and put our feet up by the pool.
We spent the rest of Christmas day frolicking by the pool and practically pinching ourselves in disbelief. Were we really spending Christmas in paradise? And then Amanda started singing, “dashing through the seas, with all three families”, and we were off, once again, sailing away to our next island destination.
Paul and I are very fond of the back of a cruise ship. It’s quiet and often hidden and the view is magnificent. You can stand at the back of the ship, look down and watch the bright blue water churn and look off at where you’ve been. On the Grand Princess, you can get a front row seat at the back of the ship, swim in the pool, even eat your breakfast or lunch, with minimal interruption. This is where we congregated as a family and thanks to my mother, we always had a place to sit. Without fail, my mother would be up and out of bed early, ready to reserve nine deck chairs at the back of the ship. Every morning we’d have our coffee and breakfast in our favorite spot, then spend the rest of the day in relax mode, only getting up for a snack or a meal. It was fabulous.
We dressed up at night and would often meet for dinner at a prearranged place. We became very fond of the specialty restaurants on the ship. Despite the small fee they charge to eat there, the food was top-notch and the service much better than in the regular dining rooms. Some nights we all ate together, and other nights we would eat separately. On one particular evening, my husband, mother-in-law, and I had a wonderful meal at Sabatini’s, an intimate Italian specialty restaurant, with Amanda and Little John, our niece and nephew. Much to our surprise, the captain and his first mate were dining with their wives at the table right next to us! By this point, my mother-in-law was famously known as the lady with the signature hairstyle and it wasn’t long before we were conversing with the captain.
Our post dinner passion was to go watch karaoke. There is something wildly entertaining about watching people sing, whether their talent is good or bad. I admire them for being so brave. I especially admire the Vanilla Ice rendition by the tall thirty-something blonde. She gave a shout out to her family and I think her grandmother was real proud of her rapping skills.
Most nights I had to talk Paul out of stalking the late night pizza bar, Alfredos. I was successful for the most part. I will admit, there was that one night, I too wanted to eat that pizza at 1am.
Curacao is a tiny Dutch island colorfully decorated in vibrant pastels. It is located 44 miles from South America and just 35 miles off the coast of Venezuela. We were unable to go to the beach here, but we did get the chance to take a walk through the city of Willemstad.
I don’t think we saw enough of Curacao to judge if we’d ever go back. However, I did fall in love with all of the colors and the architecture. I wish we could have explored more, but it was hot and uncomfortable on this particular day. My back was roasted by the time we returned to the ship.
Only about 5o miles away is another island paradise-Aruba. The water and beaches are gorgeous here. Our day in Aruba was fantastic.
First, we were picked up in a banana bus by a very entertaining local and driven out to see the famous California lighthouse. We’re not huge lighthouse people, but it did afford us spectacular views of the rocky coast. Next, our banana bus dropped us off for a day at the beach. Here, my parents, my mother-in-law, and Paul and I, lounged in the sun and swam in the amazing blue water while the Lew-I family went parasailing.
After a lovely day in Aruba, we returned to the back of our ship and, in between naps, watched the planes make their descents into the Aruba airport. We were so close we could practically reach out and touch the planes while they were coming in. I may hate to fly, but I love watching planes take off and land. It was a beautiful way to end such a beautiful day on the island of Aruba.
Our Journey Back to Ft. Lauderdale
The cruise went fast. You know what they say about time and having fun, it just flies. Our days at sea were filled with napping, eating, and taking in as much of that warm sun as we could get. We were all sad once we arrived back in Ft. Lauderdale. The Christmas Cruise was officially over and we had to head back to the cold north.
Once we disembarked from our ship, we met up with my long time Belmar friend Jessica, who now calls Ft. Lauderdale home. Here we had lunch at Mango’s in the Las Olas shopping area. It was great to see Jess and her daughter Lyla, as we don’t get to see each other as often as we’d like.
After a pleasant day in Florida, the Lew-I said their goodbyes to us early since their flight was at 5pm and ours at 7pm. We watched as they took off and disappeared into the sky, on their way back to cold Philadelphia.
Once again, we all had wonderful Southwest flights home.
The Family Vacation Experience
Keeping track of nine people on a cruise ship is not easy, especially without cell phones. However, we all went into this trip with the attitude that this vacation was for ourselves and we were free to do whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted. In the end and looking back, we spent most of our time together, all nine of us. With that, here are some important key facts from our experience together:
-It only took my Dad one day to find someone from Belmar on the ship! One day!
-Thanks to my mother-in-law and all of her elegance, we were invited to the bridge to see the Captain. Unfortunately, the Captain must have forgotten us and we all got a little overly excited for nothing. Needless to say we never saw the bridge.
-Amanda and I loved the wraps at lunch, especially that BLT one.
-I did get my “close to the equator” rash. Luckily, I got it on the second to last day and only had to wrap myself in towels and sit in the shade for a minimal amount of time. That’s progress.
-My sister-in-law doesn’t like cruise ships, especially when they rock from side to side.
-My brother-in-law and my husband got challenged to a serious game of ping-pong against two ten-year olds. In no time, John and Paul were buying sodas for their competitors. I’ll let you guess who won.
-Don’t ever try to steal a lounge chair from my Mom. You won’t win.
-“That’s what I love about Aunt Mi, she’ll eat anything”-Little John
-If they won’t take reservations for 9, Big John and I will find a way. We’ll just call back separately for a table of 5 and a table of 4, then ask you to push the tables together when we arrive as a party of 9.
-Those gifts we got at Christmas dinner were very cool. I especially loved the crowns we all got to wear on our heads, which also doubled as a rash guard for my dress.
-Princess closed the back of our ship early everyday and kicked us off our lounge chairs. We will not forget to put that in their lovely survey.
-My mother-in-law was booted from the Captain’s Circle and is now a new member again. That’s going in the survey too.
-Crooner’s has the best olives, stuffed with all sorts of goodness.
-There are no more photos to buy. My mother-in-law bought them all.
-What is American sauce?
Dashing through the Seas (to the tune of Jingle Bells)
“Dashing through the seas, with all three families
Laughing as we go, avoiding all the snow!
Our bags are stuffed and packed,
Our bank accounts are tapped,
Belmar cannot believe, they got Alfie to leave!
Oh, Christmas Cruise, Christmas Cruise, we can’t believe its real.
Oh what fun it is to sing, we finally sealed the deal!”
-Co-written by Amanda and Aunt Mi, with some suggestions from the rest of the family.