The Caribbean is known for some of the most beautiful waters in the world. Traveling from port to port aboard a Carnival Cruise ship affords us the opportunity to experience an array of beautiful islands, while experiencing the fun and excitement you get from cruising. We recently traveled those tropical waters making stops in the Bahamas, at Grand Turk, and then Amber Cove while aboard the Carnival Sunshine. The Sunshine offers some of the best food options to be found at sea, especially the Steakhouse, which many rank as the best among the major cruise lines.
On a port day you can start with breakfast in the dining room, on the lido deck or in your room. Then enjoy a day at the beach, with some pool time back on ship in the afternoon, followed by some trivia or karaoke. After a fabulous Dinner, that is always served with a smile, go enjoy a fun and engaging stage show, then catch a comedy show or sing along at the piano bar. Or, head up to the lido deck for a movie poolside on the big screen, before heading down for a little party time in the disco. There is no shortage of fun to be had on board.
But, what do we do when we get to port? I always plan ahead. I do my research. I watch YouTube videos about the ship, on the departure port and covering our ports of call. I even Google the port schedule to see how many ships will be in port at once. Did you know that as many as 9 ships could be in port at Cozumel Mexico in a single day? Common sense says reserve an excursion for your day as far in advance as possible if the port will be busy, and we do. However, you don’t want to plan an excursion for every stop, or you will find yourself stretched and may not have the blissful holiday you had hoped for.
Princess Cays – Bahamas
Carnival Cruise Lines has turned one of the more than 2000 cays in the Bahamas into a private island for their cruisers. The ship anchors off shore and water shuttles, or tenders if you are old school, ferry passengers and crew to shore and back for a day at the beach. Having Faster To The Fun guarantees you will be one of the first to the island, which helps if you want to secure prime space on the beach. But, don’t despair if you don’t manage to get FTTF. Even oversleeping and getting off the ship late won’t necessarily ruin your day. Just head North when you get to shore and you will find a beach with all the same amenities as the main beach to the South, but far less crowded.
The tenders drop you off at the pier and the signs, staff and general flow, lead you South to the main part of the island. Bars, shops, photo ops and more await you as you head down towards the beach. There are plenty of chairs to be found, but not as much shade as some may need. There are Cabanas available for rent, including an Adults Only section, but the access to the beach from those is very limited. An observation deck has been erected on the middle of the island and the views from here are breathtaking. NOTE – the stairs are steep and not easily navigated if you have mobility issues.
The snorkeling is amazing at Princess Cay (it is the Bahamas after all) and the water is so clear that you can see schools of fish streaming past the observation point they have built out over the water. With the ship in the background, this is one of the better photo ops around. You can also watch your friends and family snorkel if you enjoy a spectator role over participant. Lunch is served buffet style, but get there early as the lines can get pretty intimidating. But, like everything else, Carnival gets everyone fed and most people leave happy. If you forget your snorkel equipment, never fear, there will be a space to rent the snorkel stuff and more.
So, taking advantage of FTTF put us on the first tender boat of the day. We loaded from the mid-ship gangway while they loaded the staff, crew members and supplies onto another tender at the front. If you are interested in the way things work, or the logistics of getting 3,000 people to an island, it is definitely worth sitting at the front. I was surprised that Dawn and I were able to get such prime seats for the trip to shore, but we did so by not following the herd and thinking for ourselves. Which lead us to the North part of the island as well.
We relaxed and kept our seats at the front of the tender and took our time as many anxious cruisers lined up to hustle South hoping to make their claim on the more prime beach space, or less shaded spots to setup a base camp. After the rest of the passengers disembarked, we followed suit, but took a right and hooked behind the lockers and restrooms beside the ropes, to a path that leads to the North part of Princess Cay. A leisurely stroll led us to a beach that we had to ourselves. Literally – we were the first guests on this part of the cay and had our choice of chairs and shade everywhere. This area is perfect for those that don’t like crowds. Large boulders are piled to make two lifeguard stands, and there are a lot of fish to be found. I simply stuck my camera underwater and got a little footage of fish and coral alike.
We visited the souvenir stand while the hostess was still setting up. We were able to chat and get to know a little about her and the island, and pick thru all of her offerings before they had even been unboxed. Negotiations are part of the islands culture, so bundle your purchases and make an offer for the lot. We have found time and again that this will score you a better deal than buying one piece at a time.
After playing in the water for a bit and enjoying the beach, we decided to head to the other end of the island to get some pictures and see what there was to enjoy. Our plan had always been to get there early, enjoy a little time at shore, but then head back to the ship to try and enjoy it during prime part of the day without all the crowds. We took advantage of all the photo opportunities and walked along the “boardwalk”. I found my buddy Octavius (see earlier posts) and we got a couple of frozen libations to cool us off.
Having checked off our bucket list items, we headed back to the pier and caught a tender back to the ship. My brother and his wife were just arriving as we were heading out so we told them to head North. We sat at the front of the tender again and made our way back on board just in time to hear the Cruise Director announce that they had now opened the tenders to all boarding. So we had gone, had our fun, and made it back before some folks had even gotten a chance to disembark. That alone is worth the cost of FTTF, though not every itinerary includes tendered ports.
Once back on board we had the ship to ourselves. We enjoyed the Serenity Deck and waterfall, before indulging on lunch – without having to wait, with the rest of the ship, in four lines, for a burger and fries. (YES, we are suggesting you skip the island buffet). We found Butch and Colleen at the lobby bar and spent a little time hanging out with them before heading up to get ready for our night at the Chef’s Table. Back at the cabin we were greeted with a gift of Champagne, Chocolate covered Strawberries and a Ship’s Medal from John Heald. What a great feeling it is to get a nice surprise on your cruise.
Grand Turk – Turks and Caicos
Did you know the largest Margaritaville in the world is at the cruise port in Grand Turk? It’s Five O’Clock always! Featuring one of the largest pools in the Caribbean, travelers can cool off while soaking up the rays without having to enter the ocean. If the beach is more your style, it is just steps away with swimming closer to the ship than anywhere else we have been. The pictures make it seem like you are swimming right under the bow of the ship.
Since we would be the second ship to port, I figured a Cabana by the pool would be the way to go. We split the cost with my brother and it gave us a central spot to lock up our stuff while we splashed about, or walked on the beach. It also gave us some guaranteed shade which was at a premium on our visit. A lot of families camped out under the shade of the palms, but there weren’t many of those spots left by the time we made it to shore.
The Cabana does include a dedicated server that has a call button for when you are ready to order. The Margaritaville Menu is awesome and everything we tried was delicious.
If you are looking for a party, you will find it at the pool bar. The host MC keeps the energy up while a DJ spins the typical party anthems. It can definitely be a good time if you want to let go, but if you want to enjoy a more chilled out day, just head a little further over to the other side of the pool and you will hardly notice the raucous “MTV Spring Break” party going down in the shallow end.
The beach is pretty crowded close to the pier, but the mass of humanity thins out considerably as you head away from the cruise port area. The further you go, the more relaxed the vibe becomes. One of our items left unchecked was a trip to Jack’s Shack. An ex-pat that fell in love with the islands, Jack hosts one of the best beach bars in the world. One of the highlights of a visit was Topher the dog. A labradoodle that loved to play in the sand, Topher may have been the most famous dog on the planet. We decided to just hang out in the port area since we had the Cabana on this trip and would be back a few months later. So, never made it down to visit. Unfortunately, Topher passed a couple of weeks later and we missed our chance to play in the sand with him.
Grand Turk is the perfect beach day port. You don’t need to purchase an excursion and can find plenty to do. We didn’t explore the island as much as many other cruisers do, but we got exactly what we wanted out of our day.
Amber Cove – Dominican Republic
Amber Cove is the cruise center located in Puerta Plata, Dominican Republic. Like Grand Turk, it includes a massive pool with a swim-up bar. Instead of Margaritaville, you will find There is not the same beach access, but there are slides, zip lines and a mountain top bar to enjoy. There are 3 types of Cabana to rent: Hillside Cabanas, Poolside Cabanas and the Ocean Cabanas that are built out over the water.
We rented an Ocean Cabana for the day as a treat to ourselves. The Cabana includes snacks, a day pass for the zip line, an hour of water sports, a dedicated server and PRIVACY!!! The views are amazing and you can certainly imagine the Dinosaurs from Jurassic Park roaming these hills. Parts of the movie were filmed here and there is an homage to the history of Amber in the area.
For your memories, there are photo opportunities galore in Amber Cove. While you meander from shop to shop, there are plenty of art installations to enjoy and pose with. One of the iconic photo ops in the Caribbean is the Amber Cove signs with your ship in the background. If you visit the restrooms at the end of the shops, exit through the arch and you will have a picture like no other. Souvenirs can be found at the usual shops you find in port – Cariloha, Pacific Sun, Sharkz, etc. There is also a more haymarket like setup at the end of the plaza.