Getting There and Finally Getting Started (February 17 – 18, 2012)
On Friday, February 17, 2012 at approximately 4pm, we closed the garage door and pulled out of the driveway in our sturdy blue Pathfinder. Contents of said SUV included two relieved adults, three excited children of various sizes, three cameras, one GPS, one folder of very important papers, and five suitcases and five backpacks containing twice the amount of stuff actually needed for our adventure. Spirits were very high because we were on our way to catch a plane from Baltimore so that we could board a ship in Tampa that would take us to Mexico and back again. For good measure, some Universal time would be tacked on at the end to guarantee complete exhaustion by the time we returned home. The good vibrations in our vehicle were so powerful that the snarly traffic we encountered in York and Baltimore hardly registered in our happy little brains. Before we knew it we were parked, shuttled, and checked-in with Air Tran. My kids have never flown before so everything was new and exciting – even clearing security. The newness thing is one of the reasons I love traveling with my kids. It allows me to experience things again for the first time.
We grabbed some sandwiches from Subway, found our gate, and settled down to wait for our plane. It arrived late from some cold, dark place which pushed our departure time to 8:30pm. Boarding went quickly, though, and we were soon on our way. The flight was smooth and uneventful. Ace, who had the window seat beside me, just kept looking out over the Tron-like landscape and then whispering to me, “I love this!” The in-flight drinks and snacks tickled the kids, too. (Yes, we are easily entertained.) We arrived in Tampa around 10:30pm. By midnight, we were tucked into our cozy two bedroom and a sofa bed, two bath, no-one-has-to-sleep-together-unless-they-want-to suite at Homewood Suites near the airport. As far as traveling days go, this was a pretty good one. And, our high spirits were worn out just enough that we were able to get some decent sleep.
Check out wasn’t until noon and we didn’t have to be at the Port of Tampa until 1:30pm so we slept in Saturday morning and ate a free, leisurely breakfast in the dining area of the hotel. Carlos, at the front desk, was kind enough to arrange for a shuttle to take us to the port. We started packing our things and prepared to depart. Just as we were leaving the room, I received a text from Royal Caribbean. The Port of Tampa had been closed due to fog and our ship, which was returning from a previous cruise, hadn’t even docked yet. Royal Caribbean was requesting that passengers not report to the terminal until at least 3pm. Unfortunately, we had no choice. The hotel was full and couldn’t accommodate us with a late checkout. We figured we’d just sit around in an air-conditioned waiting area at the terminal and read until we could get on the ship. (The totally unrealistic expectations are a result of being cruise virgins.)
Our shuttle driver dropped us off in the midst of utter pandemonium. Porters, Royal Caribbean staff, and potential cruise passengers were everywhere. First impressions were deceiving, though. The cruise line had everything under control. A porter took our bags and a staff member offered ideas of where to eat lunch and hang out, gave us instructions for when to return to the terminal, and sent us on our somewhat bewildered way. Thank goodness I came to my senses, because I realized all of our passports and boarding information were in one of the bags the porter had taken. For one heart-stopping moment I thought we were seriously up the creek without a paddle. Jay spotted our porter and, lo, and behold, he still had our bags, now under a huge pile of other luggage. I could have cried from relief. With all our papers safely in our possession, we wandered off to waste some time.
Adjacent to the port of Tampa is a small shopping arcade called Channelside. There isn’t much to tell about Channelside except that it housed the hippest bowling alley/restaurant I’ve ever been in. A lot of other people apparently thought so ,too. The alleys were hopping with families and birthday parties. The dining area was all velvet and leather (very glam) – and totally full. We found open pub tables in the space between the dining room and the bowling alley and ordered some lunch. The food was excellent – blackened chicken quesadillas with mango salsa, pulled pork and cheeseburger sliders, fresh Caesar salad, and rustic hand-tossed pizza. Not your typical bowling alley fare, huh? I tried to take pictures, but the uber-chic lighting made for very blurry photos. (Please forgive my ameteur skills.) We would have loved to do some bowling but there was a waiting list for lanes and when we’d finished eating, it was time for us to return to the terminal.
After lunch, we hurried back to Terminal 3 so that we would be on time for our check-in. It was around 2pm and the Jewel was just turning around in the channel. It still wasn’t docked! The next four hours turned out to be an ultimate test of endurance. Our group was called 45 minutes later than the time indicated on our paper. We were herded up an escalator and queued on a long cement deck, where we waited in the relentless sun for the next hour and a half. Finally, when I was sure we would all melt into puddles on the ground and the couple behind us would spontaneously combust, security graciously allowed us into their cattle chutes to wait some more, piled on top of one another once again. It was one of those Purgatory moments for me. Had I always been waiting in a line to board a cruise ship? Was it my destiny to forever remain in a forsaken security queue – always hoping for but never reaching the glorious ship? Before my last shred of sanity had a chance to unravel, the clouds parted, angels sang, and the line started moving. Fast. Within ten minutes we’d cleared security, checked-in, and were seated in goose-bump inducing air-conditioning, eating peanut butter crackers, and waiting for boarding group 6 to be called.
Throughout this whole ordeal, the Royal Caribbean staff could not have been nicer or more upbeat. They were dealing with disgruntled patrons (both embarking and disembarking) and were also working some serious overtime. Kudos and more kudos for making a difficult situation bearable. They earned their pay and then some and I can’t thank them enough. Also, despite the uncomfortable conditions and the very long wait, most people were well-behaved and pleasant. I appreciated that, too. I realized that cruising with these people was probably going to be OK.