Living overseas means that you can go years without seeing a lot of your family. I’m no exception. I haven’t seen most of them for 2 years, some even longer.
This might be the very last official family reunion, but overall, we had a great time. This was the first time Eoin met most of my family and I think we did a great job welcoming him. I know his family have welcomed me with open arms.
To celebrate my grandparents’ 70 years of marriage and Eoin and I’s 1 year of marriage, we all went on a cruise from Florida to the Caribbean, stopping in Haiti and Jamaica.
As with every family reunion, there are challenges in planning all of it. The family are scattered all over the country, and now the globe, with me moving overseas. People have work and school, so it’s hard to take time off. Then people have different travel preferences. Some people like the cold. Some people like hot weather. We also need to find a destination that has something for kids, young adults, the older family, and those with limited mobility.
My dad did the planning and my little brother (even though he’s been way taller than me for years, still think of him as my little brother) helped a lot. So I want to give a big thank you to them both.
In the end, they settled on another cruise. It’s the third time we had a family reunion on a cruise. First time was Alaska in 2008, second time was Allure of the Seas in 2013, and this one on the Independence of the Seas is the third one.
Cruises are perfect for people with limited mobility. There’s no driving involved, so that means less stress. There are kids programmes. It’s short enough so people can take some time off. The fares include lodging, food, and most entertainment. So it can be a good value. Especially if you like to eat.
The cruise and the ship itself:
We chose Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas departing out of Fort Lauderdale with ports in Labadee, Haiti and Falmouth, Jamaica. The cruise was 5 nights and we got to spend 2018 and begin 2019 on the cruise, nice!
Some pictures of Fort Lauderdale
The ship was launched in 2008 and is part of the Freedom Class of ships. It has recently been remodelled with extra cabins, a trampoline park called the Sky Pad, laser tag (which is really in a multi purpose venue), water slides, and an Escape Room. Of course, there’s the shopping mall looking area called the Royal Promenade, full of shops and restaurants. It’s a cool place to take pictures too.
Like any other ship, there’s a big cafeteria, some premium restaurants, swimming pools, bars, a casino, and more.
Overall, it was not my favourite cruise ship I’ve been on. The top 3 for me were The Allure of the Seas, Anthem of the Seas, and The Norwegian Epic. Wasn’t bad, but as someone who has been on these huge cruise ships, this wasn’t as exciting. The Allure’s zipline and many different themed neighbourhoods was incredible. The Anthem had the North Star glass ball that you could go in and get incredible views of the ports and the ship, a bar run by a robot, and bumper cars. The Norwegian Epic had a bowling alley, water slides, and a dedicated comedy club. Let’s just say I was spoilt!
Let’s begin with the entertainment. I usually think cruise ship shows are cheesy. I only enjoy ones that are like a Cirque du Soleil type show, figure skating, or comedy. The trend for cruise ship shows is to do fewer of them and usually they’re one of each of these: Stand-up comedy, variety show, or a musical. The musical on this ship was Grease, which I skipped because A. it’s cheesy AF and B. I’d rather do a photoshoot. So that’s what I opted for instead. No regrets!
There was only one standup comedy show and they brought on comedian Michele Balan, a NYC based stand up comic who has appeared on NBC’s Last Comic Standing and has performed at a bunch of famous venues in America. I enjoyed her standup comedy set and she made a lot of jokes about being on a cruise. Checked her website and she’s doing shows on Royal Caribbean Cruises until April.
People may dismiss cruise ship comedians, but it sounds like a cushy job. You perform a couple of shows during the cruise then have the rest of the time to relax and see a bunch of different sights. You don’t have to pay for rent or food.
The other show that interested me was the show Freeze Frame, which was an ice skating tribute to music from the 40s to the 80s. These nostalgia type shows intrigue me because I wonder how many creative liberties they will take. Playing Aretha Franklin in the Motown section? She was never signed to Motown. In the middle of the 60s segment they played “Bicycle Race”, which was released in 1978! If they wanted to make that the first song of the 70s, fair enough.
I don’t really go to the cruise ship shows because I love them, but to kill time. You can tell I’m not a cruise ship kind of person. I prefer to pick what I want to do, see a city in depth, and live like a local.
What was it like for vegans?
Cruises are tricky for vegans, but absolutely fine for vegetarians. In the Windjammer buffet, there was a section with vegetarian items (which was really helpful for Eoin), but almost nothing there was vegan, which was really frustrating. Unlike Europe, in America there’s no requirement to mark dishes for common allergens, so this makes it even harder for me to suss out what could possibly be okay for me to eat.
I don’t get why the base dish can’t be vegan and then people can add cheese, butter, or eggs as they please. This meant I was eating a lot of salad and fruit for lunch.
Unlike larger cruises, they didn’t have build your own stir fry or build your own sandwich stations. They did have build your own pizza, but it was a long wait, not so bad because you got an entire pie.
The main dining room was much easier to navigate as a vegan and had a few more options. However, the staff were not always helpful. Luckily, you can easily get soy or almond milk no problem. Breakfast was easily the best meal of the day. Lunch wasn’t great, and dinners were hit or miss.
I’ve done previous cruises dairy free and vegetarian and usually when you tell people you’re vegan or lactose intolerant, the waiter gets the maitre’d or a dedicated specialist to organise dinners for you. The last cruise I was on had a really knowledgeable and helpful person who took care of all of that, providing suggestions for suitable meals, and even let me know what foods at the buffet were suitable.
This unfortunately was not the case on the Independence of the Seas. The staff handling it were disorganised and there were lots of mixups with the food, forgetting to bring stuff or bringing the wrong stuff. My dad noticed that it wasn’t just the restaurant staff who were not up to par, but also housekeeping. We had a feeling that this ship might be one of the training ships where new workers are placed and then moved up to the better ships as they progress.
The maitre’d once handed me tomorrow’s menu and pressured me to pick something, and there was nothing there for me except for spaghetti and marinara and a mixed fruit plate.
When my dad was making plans, he told me that there would be a special vegan menu (I even saw pictures of it), but a lot of the staff had no idea about it. Are vegans really that rare or are a lot of vegetarians really complacent and deal with the so-so options?
I have really bad anxiety so speaking up about these things is not my forte. Usually I grumble and eat a salad. My brother, who is 19 and studying hospitality, stepped up to the plate as concierge and made sure that I had stuff to eat for dinner. Let’s give my brother a standing ovation! He did an amazing job talking to the chefs and kitchen staff for the special family meals. I think he will do very well working as a concierge. What he did to help me meant a lot.
So below, we’re going to highlight just the good moments:
At one of the specialty restaurants, Giovanni’s Table, my brother arranged a special vegan meal for me and Eoin. Spring rolls and veggie sushi as appetisers, a lentil and chickpea salad, Pad Thai as the main course. Not Italian food, but delicious!
At the New Year’s Eve dinner, we had sweet and sour veggie “chicken”, bruschetta, soup, and green curry.
There was this really pretty desserts table for the New Year’s Eve celebration. Couldn’t eat anything there because nothing was vegan, but it was pretty to look at.
My dad heard great things about Izumi, the Hibachi restaurant on the cruise ship, and because my dad had to cancel some excursions because he was injured a couple weeks before the trip, he decided to treat us to a special meal. On previous cruises, my dad wouldn’t spend money on premium restaurants, but now I think he wouldn’t be opposed to that idea as much anymore.
The meal was really a great show and the Chef, Eric, was hilarious and very accommodating for my dietary needs and Eoin’s dietary needs.
Here’s a video of that experience:
Here are some pictures from that meal:
I had salad, fried rice, tofu and veggies, and some sushi. I ate way too much and felt like I was pregnant with a food baby.
The last dinner on the ship was decent. I had tacos, an aubergine stack, soup, red curry, and sweet and sour “chicken”. Thank you again to my brother for arranging this!
Overall, I wish the vegan options weren’t so repetitive, but they weren’t bad. Cruises aren’t ideal for vegans, but it is possible to survive. Just don’t be afraid to speak up about your needs.
Port #1: Labadee
The cruise had two stops, Labadee, which is a “private island” that isn’t really an Island. Just a walled off portion of Haiti that only cruise ship passengers can visit. Before talking about what I did, we’ll talk history, since this is an educational blog.
Haiti is the most mountainous country in the Caribbean, so this port has beautiful, lush green mountains – reminds me a bit of home. The sea is a beautiful blue.
Haiti is a country with a sad history. In secondary school, we learnt a bit about it because the town I went to school in had a sizeable Haitian community, leaflets and stuff were also printed in French Creole. This video from Geography Now explains a lot of history, culture, and more.
The original peoples of Hispaniola (the island Haiti and the Dominican Republic are on) were the Tainos. The name of the country, Haiti, is from the Taino language, meaning “land of high mountains”. Before Columbus colonised Hispaniola, there were multiple caciquedoms, each lead by a chief called a cacique. Columbus arrived on 5 December 1492, bringing diseases that killed off the indigenous population and forcing those who survived to convert to Christianity. The Tainos were also enslaved. The French took over later on, enslaving thousands of Africans. There was a high mortality rate, with many Africans dying of smallpox and typhoid. Like many other countries in the Americas, there were some free mixed people who got some amount of rights.
In the 1790s, Black Haitians began the fight for their rights and for freedom. They were inspired by the French Revolution of 1789. Blacks outnumbered whites in Haiti and in 1804, there was a massacre carried out against the remaining white French and Haitian-born people. Important leaders in the Haitian Revolution include Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines.
Haiti then became the first black-led republic and the first independent state in the Caribbean. The first successful slave revolt happened in Haiti and it was the first country in the Western world to ban slavery.
America took notice of this and President Thomas Jefferson (who was a slave owner himself) feared that the revolution in Haiti would inspire enslaved black Americans to do the same so he refused to recognise Haiti. America did not recognise Haiti until the 1860s.
As for modern days, it’s extremely sad. In short, the country had a lot of debts, corrupt governments, dictatorships, embargos, invasions, etc. Haiti isn’t so lucky in its location. It’s located right on a fault line and that means it’s prone to earthquakes. Being in the Caribbean means there’s a risk of hurricanes. In 2010, Haiti was struck by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake, which killed 200,000-300,000 people and left over a million people homeless. Hurricane Matthew hit in 2016, which was the worst hurricane to strike in 50 years.
The culture of Haiti is very rich and like Paul Barbato said in the Geography Now video, Haitian culture is very Afro-centric, as it’s the country with the highest black population (95%). Haitian Creole, or Kreyòl is an official language of the country. It combines French with West African languages, Portuguese, and Spanish. While the majority religion is Christianity, a lot of people incorporate the Afro-diasporic religion of Vodou in their lives. Very fascinating religion. If you’ve listened to The Pretty Things’ SF Sorrow, you’ve probably heard them mentioning Baron Samedi (Saturday), a loa in Haitian Vodou.
Information on the port:
Labadee is located near the second largest city in Haiti, Cap-Haïtien. In the 1980s, Royal Caribbean rented out the resort area for passengers on Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, and Azamara Club Cruises. The lease is until 2050. There was a time that the cruise line wouldn’t tell passengers that Labadee was actually in Haiti because people had reservations about the country and its safety. They couldn’t hide it for much longer as technology gets better and people are more informed thanks to the internet.
As you can expect, it makes up the largest proportion of Haiti’s tourism revenue. Royal Caribbean hires hundreds of locals who staff the beaches and attractions and entertain tourists. The cruise line also sells licences to a couple hundred vendors to sell their wares. The cruise line pay a set fee of $12 for each passenger and that money goes to the Haitian government.
How much of this money goes to people in need, I’m not sure. I don’t know how much the locals who are employed there or the people selling their wares make, especially compared to other work available on the island. I hope it’s enough to not only live well, but save money. I saw a lot of workers asking for tips.
I really can’t stand tipping culture. The employer should be paying the worker a living wage, the cruise line make enough money, they can afford to pay fair wages to the Haitian workers. America, go take lessons from Japan, a country where tipping is sometimes even considered an insult.
It feels bad that I’m going to a part of the country where ordinary locals cannot go (the linked article from Third Eye Mom is fascinating and very informative). As someone who is aware of all these issues Haiti is having, it’s hard to really enjoy myself, knowing that on the other side of the wall there are people in dire straits. It’s the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Education isn’t free. The unemployment rate is extremely high. Four out of every five people live in extreme poverty.
Passengers are not allowed to leave Labadee to see the real Haiti, so you’re a captive audience and don’t get an authentic experience. I suppose cruises aren’t for those of us who want to get an immersive and authentic experience.
Things to do:
The only free thing to do is walk around and go to the beach. Just make sure to get there early so you can get a chair.
Everything costs (way too much) money. You want a cabana? That’ll cost you. Wanna go on the waterslide or on the water playground? Pay up! You want a floating beach mat? Rent it. This island is a real cash cow for the cruise line. Travellers are stuck spending money with the cruise line and they have no other option – captive audience.
On the Zipline!
What was most overpriced though was the Dragon’s Breath Zipline, about $100 for just one go on the zipline. If my grandpa wasn’t treating us, I wouldn’t have done it.
To be fair, the zipline ride is about 90 seconds long, but at the same time, for that price you can go on ziplines for an hour or two at another port. The reason the price is so high is also because of the novelty of it being the longest zipline over water. If you bring anything with you, you will have to store it in a locker, which will cost $8. The good news is you can use the locker all day.
It’s a nice ride down, but sadly if you don’t have a GoPro and a special mount for your chest or head, you can’t film anything, as they won’t let you hold a camera because you need to hold onto the bar above your head. I wish the staff had made this more clear, but whatever. At least I got video from the test zipline. I was holding onto my phone for dear life and luckily it made it. I think the cruise line could make even more of a mint if they rented out GoPros to people going on the ziplines. I totally would have rented one because I love videos and pictures as memories.
Our parasailing excursion was cancelled because of wind, not the cruise line’s fault so we decided to walk around. While there, we bumped into my mum and my brother and my cousin and her family. We spent most of our time at the beach and my husband ended up getting sunburnt. Below are some pictures I took while in port:
Other than that, we walked to the artisan’s market. Like in any flea market, there are pushy vendors who tell you sad stories and stuff, which is really understandable given the dire circumstances the country is in. You’ll need cash if you want to buy anything here. We didn’t bring any cash, so we didn’t get anything.
There is a free barbecue lunch served in port, but the options are not good for vegetarians or vegans. I was shocked that there was no veggie burger option. I went on a cruise in 2008 and I was able to find veggie burgers in the buffet. I think it was a missed cultural opportunity. Would have been cool to see real Haitian dishes being served to passengers. Step up your game Royal Caribbean!
Final Thoughts on Labadee:
Overall, is it worth getting off the boat? Yes, if you like the beach. If you’re not a beach person, you’re better off staying on the ship. It’ll be way less crowded and you can enjoy a lot of the amenities.
Excursions in Labadee are overpriced (much of that cost pocketed by the cruise line with locals not seeing anything) and you have to pay for everything. My parents and my brother once went on the cultural tour on a previous trip. The cruise line claim you go to a real village, but that’s not exactly the case. It’s a walking tour of a mock village and the “villagers” are paid locals. My brother said that what he learnt wasn’t any more than what he learnt in history class.
If I were to go on another cruise that stops in Labadee, I’ll stay on the ship. I’m not Haitian so my opinion on whether or not Labadee is good for the country is not an informed one. If you are Haitian, let me know your opinion. Have your say in the comments!
Port #2: Falmouth, Jamaica
History and Facts
Falmouth is a Georgian town in the parish of Trelawny, 18 miles east of Montego Bay. It was one of Jamaica’s busiest ports historically.
The indigenous people of Jamaica were the Arawak and Taino people, who came to the island from South America. The country’s name comes from the Arawakan word, Xaymaca, which means “Land of Wood and Water”. Columbus also colonised Jamaica and the Spanish ruled over it from 1509-1655 before the British kicked the Spanish out in 1655. The history with slavery and colonisation is pretty similar to other countries in the Americas so I don’t want to repeat myself. Slavery was abolished in 1833 with legislation and full emancipation was declared in 1838.
Jamaica became independent in 1962 and has a similar form of government to Canada, with Queen Elizabeth II as the head of state, a Governor-General who represents the British Monarch, a Prime Minister who is the head of government and leader of the majority party in parliament.
What did you do there?
In my opinion, this was the better port because of the wider variety of things to do, but there are some flaws. When you get off the ship, you’re not in town, you’re in a port area with lots of touristy shops, it’s a contrast from the real Jamaica. It’s a bit of a walk to get to town and there’s no beach within walking distance, so you’ll need to get a taxi or go with a shore excursion.
We opted for a shore excursion where we could jump off waterfalls and go river tubing. We also had some rice and peas (beans) for lunch. Lots of thrills. The ride to the waterfalls and the river was a bit long, as the location was closer to Ocho Rios, which is in a different parish, St Ann.
Why did I pick this? I have a fear of heights, but anyway, it was a lot of fun. You’ll need swimming shoes if you want to do this excursion. You can purchase them for $12 each right before, which is a good bit higher than how much they cost in Walmart.
The tubing though was our favourite part. You each get in a tube and go down the river. There aren’t any crazy rapids, but it’s still a lot of fun.
There is a lunch included. If you are vegetarian or vegan and going on this tour, make sure to contact the shore excursion desk ASAP so they can sort out a meal for you. When you get to the tour bus, let your tour guide know as well that you are vegetarian or vegan. The default lunch is jerk chicken and the vegan/vegetarian option is rice, beans, and salad. The rice and beans were good! Can’t go wrong with that!
This cruise was a lot of fun. I got to spend time with my family, many of whom I haven’t seen in two years. Eoin and I got to celebrate a year of marriage and my grandparents celebrated 70 years. I haven’t gotten permission from my family to post pictures of my grandparents’ celebration, so here are some photos from our celebration:
Would I go on a cruise again? Only if I have family who are coming along. It’s not as fun when you’re just a couple by yourselves, but cruises are a lot of fun when you’re in a big group. My dad said one of his favourite parts was randomly running into family. I’d have to agree.
Shout out to my good friend and Topaz level Patron, Patrick.
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