a fuller life

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When the Universe Gives You a Mostly Free Cruise…

So back in September, at a Carnival Cruise Line event, I won a free cruise! So when the universe gives you a free cruise, and the window you have to use it in includes your birthday, you take it. So we did.

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A mostly uneventful travel day (can’t say I really enjoyed the chaos that is Air Canada pulling 5 flights worth of passengers out of security line, leaving us to stand there for an hour… but I’ve been on the receiving side of getting pulled out of that line, so I get it… I did enjoy the no-nonsense security person telling the Air Canada rep to piss off eventually though).. Got to Houston by noon… Uber to Galveston (complete with 90 minutes of the vocal stylings of Phil Collins and other terrible easy listening) and away we go.

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We stayed at Homewood Suites on the Seawall… nice place, super friendly staff, location is ok… right across from the beach, but there’s not a lot more nearby (there’s a Walgreens). They have a shuttle that will take you anywhere in a 5 mile radius and it was totally fine for one night.

We headed out to explore the Strand area (we Ubered, with an annoying driver asking for tips with a sob story about how it’s hard in Galveston to make money because everything is close together)… Stopped for some beer and eats at Brews Brothers… craft beer selection was good, food was OK. Had some more drinks at Yaga’s Cafe (they don’t skimp on the booze here… I tried for 2 hours and my drink never managed to become empty… because every time the bartenders made one of the same for someone else, they poured the leftovers in my glass) and their staff is outstanding (regardless of the refilling of my drink). Then we walked around for a bit and stumbled across Stuttgarten beer garden, so of course we had to check it out… and eat a giant pretzel to soak up some of the mass amounts of sugar drink I am not used to imbibing. Back to the hotel after that… since we’d been up a very long time already, even though it was early in Texas. I managed to make it to 9, half-watching Lego Batman.

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Had some breakfast at the hotel (Texas waffle!) and then we decided to go for a walk on the beach, since it was nice out, we had lots of time before we had to head to the ship, and it was across the street. This was an amazing beach for running! We walked, but the sand was all nice and packed down and flat… we walked for a couple of hours and enjoyed the views.

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We took the hotel shuttle to the port. They had said it would only be able to take us to the Starbucks across the street, which was totally fine – we travel with backpacks… but the mister ended up dropping us right at the port. We were out of the van and onto the ship in like 15 minutes probably. Check in was a breeze – very organized.

So, to the pub. (Check that, we went to our cabin first to get our key cards – because in Galveston, Carnival is doing that now… then pub). Because that’s pretty much where we hang at least part of the time. The Red Frog pub is pretty much my favourite addition to the Carnival ships. Had a few drinks, met a few people, and generally relaxed.

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Did all the usual stuff involved with the first day… got our luggage, unpacked it, drank some, muster drill, etc. etc. Day drinking may have prompted a nap, and all in all, it was a nice and uneventful day. (Get ready for this, because the only goal of this cruise was to relax.)

Monday was a sea day… we got up early so Greg could run and I could walk before the track was too busy… had some breakfast and wandered around the ship a bit. We’ve sailed this ship twice before (it’s our favourite) and we already knew where everything was, so we didn’t have to find it. Spent some time chilling in the adults only area (there was loads of free deck chairs all the time on this ship), found the beer for the week (Angel City IPA for the win), played a bit of trivia (people still take that shit way too seriously), spent some time on our balcony… yay, relaxing!

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Oh wait!!! Monday was my birthday! Our cabin steward Romel left me a big Happy Birthday message on our cabin mirror. It was also formal night, and we opted to skip those altogether this time around. We had some sushi for supper, cake from the cafe (because birthday), played pub trivia and won some beer (which we shared, because I hate the kind you win), and just generally wandered around and hung out (including listening to a violin trio who were AMAZING!). Romel also left me a $50 spa gift certificate, and while I don’t spa and nothing would be that cheap in the spa, it was an appreciated nice touch. Unfortunately I couldn’t just give it to someone who might use it.

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Tuesday we landed in Cozumel…. more walking/running to start the day… and food (because cruising), and then we headed off to our tacos, tequila, and chocolate tour. This was a fun one (and if you want me to use my mad skills as a travel agent to hook you up with this very tour, contact me any time). There was only four of us on our tour. We started with a bit of free time to explore and some tequila (I may have also found some delicious iced coffee). We toured through a bit of an art gallery and then outdoors through a bunch of replicas of famous Mexican structures. Then it was chocolate time… we had some hot chocolate, taste-tested some various chocolates, made our own chocolate circles to bring home, and had a frozen chocolate drink.

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Then it was off to taste some Jose Cuervo (though we stopped to watch some acrobatics on the way, danging from a high pole with ropes… in the rain). I’m not a tequila expert, but I learned a lot from this tasting… well, and we got to drink tequila. We tried three different styles of Jose Cuervo, and then a few others (same brand) for comparison. After the tasting, we had a delicious buffet of tacos and sides, and then they made some delicious star fruit margaritas for us.

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Back to the port after our tour, and we wandered off to find some more margaritas. And guacamole. We’re not shoppers, so after that, we headed back to the ship. There was another couple of ships in port with us that day, but Cozumel is well-appointed to handle many ships. The rest of the day was a blur – though I am quite sure we played and won pub trivia again.

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Next up, Belize. But first, walking/running and breakfast. I caved and booked a cruise-ship excursion for this one. We just wanted a lazy beach day and the area of Belize (near Belize City) isn’t a “beach near the pier” kind of place… and this cruise got planned pretty quickly. We’d both been here before and we’ve done tours and visited ruins and I just didn’t want to spend a lot of time sitting on a bus. So we spent the day at Starfish Island. The boat to the island picked us up at the ship (Belize is a tender port to protect the reef system) and the ride to the island was maybe 30 minutes. The island was nice – it’s at least partially man made and it’s not overly sandy in spots… but it has everything you need for a nice beach day – loungers, shade, equipment rentals, eats, a bar, facilities, etc.

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It’s a good place for water shoes if you have them for sure, and the sand is pretty sinky… water was nice, weather was great, food was fine, drinks were tasty. Greg getting sneak-attacked by a jelly fish wasn’t ideal, but it didn’t affect his beer consumption, so he must have been fine (they gave us some vinegar to pour on it… and there was a handful of others who had the same fate that day). Boat ride back to the ship was more fun (on the upper level for a dance party). Back on board, we spent some time chilling in the pub, etc. The adult Quest game was this night as well… it was fun/funny – not nearly as much naked as we’ve seen on other ships, and I’m ok with that.

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And onto Roatan (Honduras)… more running/walking/eating to start the day… we didn’t miss a day. And then off to Little French Key for the day. They picked us up from the port (outside of it because they aren’t cruise-ship approved) and took us to the barge that goes back and forth to the key. Our admission included lunch, 2 drinks each, use of all the facilities (though there was some stuff that cost extra and different admission packages you would purchase), as well as transportation back to the port whenever we wanted to go. So what I didn’t like about this place was that they have a bunch of animals in cages (and they tour you through them at the start while they show you were everything is)… they looked to be well cared for, their cages were spotless, but I’m just not into that kind of thing.

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Again, this place had everything you could need for a lazy day at the beach… and then some. Our waitress Kelly was outstanding and took great care of us all day. There was much relaxing, floating, drinking, and maybe even some napping. The food was fine, the drinks were tasty (and reasonably priced), and the facilities were clean. If you’re into shopping, there was a little gift shop… and then there was also options to go snorkel with them, take pictures with the animals, and that kind of thing. There’s even a spa. We headed back to the port mid afternoon, wandered around there for a bit, and then back to the ship for the rest of the week.

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We did some activities on the ship this evening… which is not like us at all, but the Cruise Director on this one (Mike Pack, who is moving to the Horizon next) was AMAZING. He really has a knack for making what could be tired cruise activities very fun… and he’s incredibly funny. I think we checked out the Hasbro Game Show and the Love and Marriage show (and various other events around the ship throughout the week).

A couple of sea days rounded out the cruise… so more relaxing! We played some trivia (and won pub trivia a couple more times… because all this useless knowledge is my head sometimes equates to free drinks… and Greg’s knowledge too)… went to some more ship activities, chilled in the sun. Past guest party (translation, free drinks for an hour) was on the last night, and even that was a lot of fun with this CD. Greg won some shiny, plastic ships on sticks for playing sports trivia. We skipped another formal night and opted to eat at the deli. By the end of the week, all the usual pub trivia players just made a super team since we were sharing the beer anyways.

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General stuff. Service on the Breeze out of Galveston was outstanding. The best we’ve had on any ship, out of any port, in a long time. The food was hot and better than normal. The staff and crew were friendly. Apparently people on ships out of Texas are the least likely to remove their gratuities, so a lot of the staff really want to work on those ships. Our sailing was 95% Americans and 60% Texans. There were people on our sailing who have been on that ship 30 times and have spent more than 1000 days at sea – bonkers! The CD and entertainment staff were fun.

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Debarkation was smoother than last time we sailed from there (it helps not being fogged out and stuck at sea). Though all week it felt like there was a lot of new cruisers on the ship, our platinum area of self-debarkation was jam-packed. A staff member tried to organize it, but people were getting pretty fed up at some rude passengers sitting near the front of the waiting area yelling at people to go to the back. We’re all getting off… no need to be a dick. Customs was better – there was three lines for us to leave through as non-US passport holders, so that was an improvement from last time.

We grabbed an Uber back to Houston and were able to check in to our hotel (Fairfield Inn) at 9am, which was pretty amazing. Wandered around downtown (ghost town on a Sunday), got some breakfast at Mkt Bar, found some coffee, and came back to plot out our day. There was a street art festival (Via Colori) going on, so we checked that out for a couple of hours (tons of amazing artists, live music, some vendors, food trucks, beer) and then we found a BBQ place for supper (that took some doing – most of the BBQ places and breweries are closed on Sundays). Wandered around downtown to find a coffee (most of the coffee shops closed early or super early on Sunday) and found a Starbucks in the lobby of a Hilton. And then back to the hotel to watch football and call it a trip.

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Flights home were uneventful… had some tasty food at Breakfast Klub in the Houston airport (with the best waitress ever in the history of the universe), watched some movies on the flight (despite some people fighting across the aisle from me about putting their seats back), customs in Montreal was a breeze (they’ve made it WAYYYY easier for people with connections), walked around YUL for a bit since we had some time to kill (don’t get me started on the nice area flights to Halifax go to from YUL versus the ghetto flights to NB and PEI leave from), and back home by midnight. And that’s a wrap.

Ange out.

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Adventures in Travel Agenting – 2017

If I ever say to you that I am going to go away again for two weeks of conferences, please punch me in the face. Hard.

Having said that, I learned a lot – but two weeks of sitting still is about a week and a half too long for me. Here we go…

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First stop – Dallas, Texas. Uneventful travels, including awesome luck where the flight from Montreal to Dallas wasn’t full, resulting in an empty seat beside me… did some work, watched some movies, all good. Arrived in Dallas ahead of schedule, it’s very hot out and I’m still dressed for Canada (ish) and have a giant backpack… taxi to the Hyatt Regency (including 30 mins of chatting with my taxi driver about what to do and see in Dallas), and scored early check in at the hotel (thank you for that Hyatt Regency, neener neener to the people being jerks to the check-in agent beside me who’s room magically was not ready).

I was meeting some colleagues for the first time in Dallas, and while I had the best intentions of going out and exploring before they got in, it was hot and I was tired, so it was salad and iced coffee in the room with a Harry Potter movie marathon. They arrived around supper and we headed out to explore the area of Dallas around the hotel. It’s not very interesting, but we found some tasty tex-mex and checked out the JFK memorial.

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We had a mostly free day in Dallas before the conference started and the shuttle buses to various parts of the city the conference was providing weren’t that appealing. So breakfast at Ellen’s, a quick free tour of their Holocaust Museum (more interesting than I expected), and then off to the Texas State Fair for the day. We don’t have fairs of this size where I live, so it was interesting to see, and exactly what I expected. Found some craft beer, wandered around, checked out the live entertainment (including the Charlie Daniels band), and ate some deep-fried stuff (avocado fries and funnel cake, not together).

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Conference started Monday morning and it was pretty much all conference, all day for Monday to Thursday. This was a great conference and I’d definitely go again – really well organized, so many opportunities to chat one-on-one with suppliers, and interesting presenters across all areas of travel. The food situation was a bit iffy, especially the first day where my lunch was raw tofu with 2 pieces of broccoli and 2 carrots (thank you thank you Sarah and Chris for rescuing me that night… I was starving and it was great to get a chance to see you!!). Tuesday night, a supplier took a big group of us to an escape room. Wednesday night there was an awards gala (a very long awards gala) where it was nice to see a lot of money raised for the Children’s Wish Foundation and hurricane relief in the Caribbean.

Thursday night was our final night and they took us to dinner at AT&T Stadium… home of the Dallas Cowboys. That was pretty cool! They set up an open bar, dinner, games, photo booths, caricature artists, and tours. A nice and interesting way to end things off, for sure.

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Next stop, NYC. Morning flight to NY, where I was not so lucky as to get a free seat beside me… or a working entertainment system. I wedged a magazine in there to make the headphone jack work and got through 3/4 of a movie before the whole system died on my side of the plane with half the the flight left to go. Boo! Then we spent a super exciting hour at LGA waiting for another colleague to meet us from another terminal, then another hour in the taxi line, and then another hour into Manhattan… so it was supper time when we arrived at our hotel finally. Not ideal for anyone wanting to site-see, but it’s how things go. I pretty much headed directly to the Pennsy for some Cinnamon Snail (hooray!!!!) and then we walked a bit. Colleagues grabbed a tour bus near Times Square, I went back to the hotel and then met up with Melissa for the rest of the night. Thai food, a cake stop, and hours of hanging out like we actually near each other for the win!

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Next stop, New Jersey! Headed out in the morning to meet up with our next conference on the Anthem of the Seas. Cape Liberty is a breeze. We were there early so there was some waiting around, but nothing major. Onto the ship and checked in for the conference by 11am. We had to be there early for a speaker the first day (ironically a speaker I had just seen on Thursday, doing much exactly the same speech). RCCL was doing things differently on this cruise, in that our key cards were waiting in our cabin mailboxes when we got on and we had to wait until they opened the doors to the cabins (around 1:00) to get them. We could charge stuff with our boarding pass, but not ideal when you want to dump off some bags.

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The Anthem is a nice ship – there’s lots to do and there always seemed to be plenty of available loungers and that kind of thing. There’s the normal lines (waiting for dinner the first night and that kind of thing) and tendering for one of the ports was quite a long processes. The Seaplex (with bumper cars, video games, ping pong, acrobat school, open sports, and roller skating is a nice touch). I totally forgot to try the iFly (simulated sky diving) though.

Cruising for a conference is weird. I’m used to cruising with my amazing husband and with a big group of cool kids. Cruising where there was huge chunks of time where I was stuck in a dark room in an uncomfortable wooden chair for long periods of time surrounded by people I didn’t know, less fun. It was lovely to finally meet some more of my colleagues, but we definitely weren’t all on the same page on things to do on the ship (and I would totally rather that than people spending time doing things they hate), so I spent a lot of time wandering around by myself. I’m a social butterfly, so that wasn’t my favourite… but I was too tired by a few days into the cruise to care. Hooray for fast Internet and American NetFlix.

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So, the play-by-play. Sunday – sessions from morning until late afternoon, a few hours break (which I spent exploring the ship a bit and going to see a show called The Gift – it wasn’t too bad, RCCL does a better job than many at cruise ship entertainment), and then dinner (with suppliers, as part of the conference). Monday, went for a run and breakfast, session in the morning, and then the great people at Universal Orlando Resort treated us to some fun – complimentary park-hopper and fast passes for the day (well, about 5 hours by the time we got people off the ship, to the buses, and to Orlando from Port Canaveral).

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I’ve never been to Universal, and even though I’ve done all their travel agent training, it was nice to wander around and get a few for the parks… tried a couple of rides (definitely didn’t have enough time for many rides, even with the fast-passes), explored the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (and tried some butter beer) and some other spots, and had a quick bite to eat. Had some adventures getting back to the port (bus driver seemed to not know how to actually get to our ship and spent 30 mins or so circling around the port trying to find the right entrance… and by the level of panic on our bus, being a travel agent does not necessarily make you a good traveler). We checked out the Name That Tune game show later that evening.

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Tuesday – almost entirely a free day! We had to meet up in the morning for a group picture and then it was off to RCCL’s Coco Cay. I love the private islands… they are generally nice and relaxing and I love beach days! This one is nice and I’d go back again, but it’s not the nicest (Carnival’s HMC is still winning for me)… it’s a tender port and that takes a long time to get that many people off a big ship… but it was nice to be outside and in the ocean. Calling it a win!

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So in case you’ve never been to Coco Cay, it essentially works as an extension of the ship. You can use your key card to pay for items there the same as you would on the ship. There’s some vendors set up where you can do a bit of shopping, there’s kayaks and inflatables, facilities, etc. Some items are fee-based. You don’t have to go back to the ship for lunch – there’s snack stations set up around the island and they set up a full lunch buffet. Bars are set up around the island as well, including a swim-up one. Loungers are free.

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We checked out another show this evening – Spectre’s Cabaret or something along those lines. It was weird AF.

We arrived in Nassau Tuesday night instead of Wednesday morning because of a medical emergency, but we didn’t bother getting off the ship that night. We hung out around the ship and had a dance party instead. I didn’t get off the ship in Nassau at all actually – I’ve been a few times and I just wanted a real day off. Explored the ship, played some trivia, went to the gym, read on my balcony, had some drinks, chatted with strangers, and went up in the North Star (lifts you up about 300 feet above sea level). In the evening, we had dinner at Jamie’s Italian. I liked it, but I think I may have been in the minority.

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Thursday – back to all sessions, all the time. This was a very long day where many of the suppliers went over their time and through our breaks. And if they didn’t, someone from Royal took it upon herself to find more people from the ship to talk to us. Our conference was in a room at the back of the ship that was too hot, allowed only the people in the front two rows to see anything on the presentation screens, and had a pole and a wall in the way, which made it so a lot of the time you couldn’t actually see the presenter. Definitely not an ideal set up for a group as big as ours. And there’s a lot of motion that high up, so not perfect for anyone that gets bothered by it. Don’t get me wrong though – all of the suppliers were great… just the location was shitty. Dinner and RCCL’s We Will Rock You (really good) to close out the day.

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Friday – last day of sessions! Hooray! I was well past my ability to sit still at this point, especially in that terrible room. So I was happy when these ones ended. Some of the presenters were even getting repetitive (repeating RCCL info from day one!). We did an Amazing Race game to close it off – fun concept. More ship wandering, quickly packed, tried the bumper cars, and had some beer in the pub (decent selection). Closing session where they gave away a handful of excellent sounding cruise vacations (I did not win, but since I’m about to leave on a cruise I did win in a week, I’m good) and dinner to finish out the evening.

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Saturday – time to go home. Self debark was a breeze – off the ship, through customs, and out the door in 15 mins, tops. Melissa and Dionne met me at the port and we had breakfast since I had some hours to kill before flying home. We went to the Urban Griddle and it was aawweeessooommeeee. Melissa and I had some coffee and a chat before it was time to hit the airport. I was in the crappy section of EWR (boo!), and security took forever, but it left me not having to kill much more time after that. Uneventful flight (with a busted entertainment system again, but I wanted to sleep, so no big deal). Customs in Toronto was the fastest ever… it took 2 minutes. Chilled out with some beer and eats at Mill St, found a coffee, walked around, and then it was time to fly home.

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All in all, there was much learning involved and there was a lot of really great speakers across both conferences. I have lots more handy, dandy tools in my arsenal to assist with helping people have amazing vacations… and I’ve invested in my success. I just likely won’t invest in it two back to back weeks next time 🙂

Ange out.