Generally speaking, when we compare big ship cruises to the offerings of small ships, it’s a focus on destinations vs onboard features. Little ships commonly have fewer activities and events on board to occupy our time while big ships have so many we often have to pick and choose which ones to engage. Call them what you will; excursions, tours and time ashore on a big ship cruise are not front and center, dominating the experience. Still, for the destination-focused traveler, adventure awaits and can be no further than a stroll ashore from the ship.
On our sailing of Carnival Cruise Line‘s Carnival Freedom, the focus began very much on ship with a kick off concert by country superstar Martina McBride. Taking over the pool deck for the #CelebrateFreedom event, McBride was gone after day one, leaving a comparatively barren top deck for the remainder of the journey. While Carnival Freedom recently went through a $70 million dry dock remodeling, adding many of Carnival’s FunShip 2.0 features in the process, there are a bunch of ships out there with more to offer in the way of amusement. Still, Fungineers at Carnival Cruise Line have thought carefully about what resonates with their clientele, a fun-loving bunch that has one heck of a time on the most popular cruise line in the world. Case in point: A promenade parade of children from the particularly interesting Camp Ocean program.
Nearly fleetwide, Carnival’s entertainment department has seen a total overhaul in recent years, doing away with the (snooze fest) Vegas-style review shows in favor of engaging productions. We first saw the effect of these efforts on Carnival Breeze with Playlist Productions content from Hasbro, The Game Show, all 40-minute events that encouraged passengers to step outside of their comfort zone, nearly forcing a good time be had by all. This was heralded as a brilliant move that resonated with industry watchers who ‘get it’ about cruise vacations. A simple but critical fact: Leave your shoreside cares and worries behind, fully engage onboard content and a relaxing, rejuvenating if not life-changing experience can and will ensue. Proof: If you have sailed on any big ship cruise line before, see Carnival Corporation‘s Message In A Bottle promotional video which absolutely drives that point home.
Led by Seuss characters, children line up to walk the ship’s promenade deck with their parents and briefly become the stars of the show, once each voyage. An upcoming event, the Green Eggs and Ham breakfast, served late in each voyage, offers a similar shared experience that brings passengers together in a unique and Fun way.
That’s not to say that nothing happens off the ship though. Available to book in advance of sailing, a nice selection of tours is available at each port of call. Once on board, passengers find a complete listing of tours in their cabins too. Interesting fact verified by shore tour desk personnel on Carnival Freedom: Most passengers do not book tours in advance. Commonly thought of as the way to go when planning our cruise vacations to avoid wanting a tour that is sold out, none were in advance of our sailing. Still, booking in advance does help with budgeting and getting a good idea of the end cost of a cruise vacation before the ship sails away. Stopping in Costa Maya, Mexico about a third of the 3000+ passengers had bookd tours ranging from a visit to Mayan ruins to a Jungle Beach Break, Dolphin Swim Adventure and more. I wound up learning how to make the best Chicken Tacos on the planet.
Stopping by a local restaurant (name will remain unspoken for a reason that will be obvious shortly), my plan was to walk destination designed for cruise travelers, have lunch and call it a day. Something we commonly do, it’s an inexpensive and sometimes immersive activity more associated with tiny ships where destinations play a larger role in the overall experience. Chatting with my waiter I asked about the challenges of having thousands of potential patrons visiting all at once, for a limited time. Ships arrive, dump off passengers for a few hours then take them away and along with them the only source of income these places have. One might think food quality not all that much of an issue. In all practicality, this is not like choosing one chain restaurant over another; its just a matter of convenience. Still, providing authentic and delicious cuisine is something that will get people off ships and ashore for a gastronomic experience not available back home. Enjoying the best Chicken Tacos I have ever had in my life, I asked for the secret.
“You want to see?”, I was asked. Jumping at the chance to learn something I could bring back home, I turned my camera off by request and went back into the kitchen of the beachside cantina. The process is actually quite simple. Fresh chicken breasts are pounded flat before grilling, something we do at home quite often. Different than at home, those chicken breasts are seasoned before pounding begins, driving the not-revealed mix of spices deep inside. While I was watching this process, it was hard not to notice that all along the edges of the restaurant’s flat top grill were bricks. Bricks like one might build a wall or house with, use as pavers for a sidewalk or otherwise have no use for in a kitchen.
Pounded flat and in the process breaking down the structure of that chicken breast, it is immediately put on the grill then (and there is no other way to explain this) attacked by those hot bricks, stacked three high on top of it. The net effect is that within less than a minute of an order coming in, the chicken is pounded, flash seared, taken off the grill, insta-chopped by a cook with a big knife in each hand, put on awaiting tortilla’s that were just hand made moments before too and sent running to the table.
Because “we let cruise (passengers) take pictures before but some made trouble, saying it was not a good way to (handle) food”. Probably right, those people missed the point. Here I was within walking distance of the ship, no tour planned, and I will bring back home a way of reproducing the experience for the rest of my life. That’s making a local connection, something thought of as reserved for tiny destination focused ships and even then it is often difficult to emulate a culinary experience found in another country back home. Case in point: try making the sausages of Germany on your back yard grill. North American’s know nothing of sausages in comparison. Believe me, I have tried this after returning from multiple trips to the land of sausages.
While I can not offer images of what I saw, I’ll replicate this at home and update this article very shortly after arrival back in Orlando. This one should work.
In all, Carnival Freedom offered 27 different tour options in Costa Maya, ranging from a Jungle Beach Break, basically a ride to and from a lovely beach ($39) to a Fly Fishing Tour that took anglers the the secluded Costa Maya Channels with professional guides there to help catch and release Bonefish, Tarpon and Permit and more. Without taking one of those, destination immersion was possible in a way that resonated with me and will be a great story to tell for decades. And it was all just within a short stroll from the ship. Count this as our first post in a series that details just how easy it is to define your own travel, even on a big ship.
Chris is not a paid spokesperson or brand ambassador. Not compensated by cruise lines, what you read here are his observations, thoughts and interpretations, biased only by a positive outlook and appreciation for what cruise vacations have to offer travelers.