Splash and Dash: Shore Excursions in the Western Caribbean

Splash and Dash
In times past, I considered myself the queen of the layover…cramming whirlwind adventures into the hours we had in any given city before flying off for the next leg of the journey. It was exciting and fun; a little amuse bouche to give me the hunger to come back and spend some real time. Or decide that 4 hours was enough. (Sorry, Salt Lake City) The thought of doing that with a toddler and willful kindergartner though, makes me feel a bit nauseated. There isn’t time for the meandering my children seem to thrive on, and the repercussions of a missed flight are too harsh for a family with young kids. I thought the joy of the dash and go had ended in my travelling career, until we started to think about a cruise and shore excursions.

“But does a day in each place really give you enough time?” one of my friends questioned as I gave her the rundown of the itinerary of our upcoming cruise from Galveston, heading to Montego Bay, Grand Cayman Island and Cozumel.

“It will be ok” I countered. “It’ll give us a taste of each place so we know where to go back.” Like a layover! Yes!

The key to an effective layover is not to try to see everything in your few hours, but to choose one thing and do it as thoroughly as possible. It takes research beforehand, and a willingness to take a bit of a risk. If that one thing you have chosen to do sucks, you’ve blown it. There’s no time to find something else and get there, you may as well head back to the airport and find the bar.

Taking my “can’t fail” formula and applying it to the shore excursions was a bit of a no brainer: these excursions are designed for cruise passengers to get the most out of their limited time ashore. The real question was what we wanted to see!

Galveston

images courtesy of Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau

The cruise left from the Texas port of Galveston. Everything I knew about Galveston was from some “Places to Party” TV show from the early 2000s. The show was basically a travelogue of parties. I’m sorry to admit my low-brow tastes; Downton Abbey wasn’t invented yet, I had nothing else to watch when I was 20.

What I learned from TV was that Mardi Gras on Galveston is a pretty big deal. We arrived on a Friday afternoon, three days after the big day, and it kind of reminded me of a prom queen the day after prom. The vestiges of the party remained, but with a bit of a mournful, abandoned feel. Beads from the necklaces that must have been tossed by revellers littered the gutters. Green, purple and gold bunting hung from porches, heavy with rain, looking battered and tattered. Even with the “yesterday’s party” feel, it is hard to escape Galveston’s charm. It has a storied past, complete with pirates and intrigue, plus pleasant tropical weather!

We had an afternoon and evening to discover Galveston so we strolled The Strand Historic District a bit, browsing through funky little shops before grabbing some burgers near the beach. To cap off the evening we decided to embrace the past at Pirates! Legends of the Gulf Coast.

The attraction (I don’t want to call it a museum, because it is way cooler than that) leads you through a scavenger hunt teaching interesting pirate lore and facts. It is housed next to The Haunted Mayfield Manor, which is also based on Galveston’s nefarious past, but that is not recommended for children under 12 or their scaredy cat mothers.

As we departed the foggy port of Galveston the next day, a man with a guitar sang Glen Campbell’s song named after the island, lyrics about sea waves crashing and cannons flashing made me feel nostalgic for the place where I had spent barely 24 hours—but spent them well!

Chukka-Jamaica
Across the Gulf of Mexico and into the Caribbean Sea we sailed to our first port of call: Montego Bay, Jamaica. With the help of the Jamaica Tourist Board, we decided to invest our time with Chukka, at their Good Hope Estate. Chukka is one of the major tour and adventure companies in the Caribbean, and they offer a wide array of activities. The Good Hope Estate is a good choice for families with a tight time budget because you could do a lot in one place.

There is a ropes course for adults and a miniature version for kids. A playground, an impressive aviary, a fishing pond (have the chef prepare your catch for your lunch!) and a lovely pool to cool off in are a wonderful way to spend the day. There is even the option for parents to enlist the help of the Chukka staff to watch the kids while the parents go off on their own. The sunny estate was once a sugar cane plantation and part of the appeal of visiting is the chance to learn some Jamaican history.

In our quick hours we had history, adventure, were serenaded on a carriage ride, even a little bit of time to relax in the shade, and learned that Jamaica is a place that we need to return!
Back to the ship and on to the Cayman Islands!

Splash and Dash
For stop number three, we focused our laser of attention on the marine life of Grand Cayman. Sure, a turtle pooped on my hand (the funniest thing my kids have seen in their combined seven years on the planet, apparently) but it was still one of the highlights of the trip! The Cayman Turtle Farm: Island Wildlife Encounter is a stunning piece of property, complete with turtle touch tanks, an underwater viewing area of “predator ridge” (sharks and barracudas!) an aviary, and Turtle Lagoon which offers the chance to snorkel with the sea life.

Quick visit verdict? I spent my shipboard internet minutes looking up Caymanian real estate. FYI: $3000 (USD) a month for 2 bedroom apartments.

Onto the Mexican island of Cozumel!

Splash and Dash

I value learning above many things, but sometimes on vacation, you just need to turn your brain off. We had done a good job of mixing teachable moments with leisure, but to ensure the balance was maintained, we spent our few hours on Cozumel at the Playa Mia Grand Beach and Water Park. We were travelling during the school year, so while the adult areas of the resort were pleasantly populated with people taking advantage of the open bar, the children’s areas were left to us and one other family.

My kids will forever be ruined for our local spray parks after spending time at the pirate themed water park area at Playa Mia. Combined with the pristine beach, giant inflatable in the ocean and plentiful food, we got the tropical resort experience packed into the space of hours.

Lesson learned: a beach vacation calls for Cozumel!

At the end of the trip, tucked snug in their berth, our sons elected to look at our photos in lieu of a bedtime story. They recalled the places and things we had seen and learned, and I felt very satisfied that despite the short time we had had in each place, they had derived meaningful experiences and made memories of some good times as a family. Maybe, just maybe, I will bequeath my quick trip crown to them….eventually.

Many thanks to Legends: Pirates of the Gulf, Chukka and Playa Mia Grand Beach and Water Park for hosting us, and to the Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Although we do our best to provide you with accurate information, all event details are subject to change. Please contact the facility to avoid disappointment.

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  1. March 30, 2015

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