Sailing with the Disney Cruise Line
Part V

Shore Excursions of the Western Caribbean Disney Cruise
or
Mr. Toad is Alive and Well and Leading Excursions in Cozumel

by Dave Marx, Guest Columnist

Feature Article

This article appeared in the February 18, 2003 Issue #178 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fifth in an ongoing series of ALL EARS® articles on cruising with Disney. This week, ALL EARS® welcomes the contributions of Passporter Author Dave Marx who shares his insights on Shore Excursions of the Western Caribbean Disney Cruise.

Ah! Island life! What I wouldn't give for two, three weeks or more on an island paradise. Having been blessed enough to do just that several times over the years, the blink-and-it's-over life of a 12-hour cruise ship port visit is little more than a cruel tease. You can't possibly hope to ferret out the island's best-kept secrets, savor its finest foods, swing into its rhythms, or form a bond with its people.

When faced with this predicament, some cruisers rent a car and strike out on their own to snatch some bit of authenticity from their visit. Others satisfy themselves with a shopping spree near the port, and still others stay on board, in their ship's comforting embrace. However, if you're looking for a "sure thing" that may still acquaint you with an island's best features, a shore excursion may be just what you want.

Shore excursions fall into three categories: adventure/sports, beach lounging, and sightseeing/shopping, and each island excels at one or more of these. Before setting sail, research the island's best features and choose an excursion that gives you a healthy bite of the island's best. We approached the inaugural 7-Night Western Caribbean cruise on the Disney Magic with just that plan.

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Tips for Shore Excursions
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Now, before we move on to our island-by-island report, here are a few tips for happier shore excursions:

Dress for your excursion. Don't count on having proper changing facilities. If you expect to swim or get damp, wear your swimsuit, and apply your sun screen in the cabin.

Carry your own bottled water. It's hot out there!

Keep a sense of humor, and don't expect your hosts to create all the fun.

Research your shore excursions well in advance, and book early. Your choices really do become limited if you wait until the last minute.

Don't take an excursion in every port of call, or your cruise will feel like a commando theme park visit.

A day spent aboard ship while you're in port may be more relaxing than a day at sea. Just recline against the rail on Deck 9, look down at all the scurrying tourists, and say, "Lord, what fools these mortals be!"

Now it's time for my impressions of each island on the Western Caribbean itinerary, and reports on the shore activities we've experienced!

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Impressions - Key West
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Key West is a good town for walking. Most attractions are a short stroll from the cruise ship piers. As Florida's southernmost landfall, Americans will probably feel more secure wandering Key West than any other port of call. To find your bearings on the island, take the Conch Train or Old Town Trolley tour early in your visit. These tours begin very close to the wharf, and there's no need to book them as an official shore excursion.

Key West is famous for the nightly Mallory Square ritual, when thousands of revelers gather, beverages in hand, allegedly to watch the legendary sunset (yeah, sure). There are also a variety of sunset party cruises. We watched the festivities from a perch up on the Magic's Deck 10. We had a great time watching the squadron of party boats and the army of party beasts, and the sunset really was superb.

Shore Excursion - Key West "Catamaran Racing - K01"

The catamaran racing excursion seemed to be the combination of outdoor adventure, healthy competition and physical exertion we were looking for. We were right. We got plenty of sun, salt spray, a bit of seafaring education, and plenty of sailing action, but a 6-passenger cat isn't exactly an America's Cup racer. No frenzied dashing about the deck for us, but we had a great time (we won!). A three-hour tour well spent.

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Impressions - Grand Cayman
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Our impressions of this island are centered on our shore excursion, which occupied most of the time available for exploration. The next time we're in this port we'll spend all our time doing water-based adventure sports. To learn why, read on.

Shore Excursion - Grand Cayman - "Stingray City Snorkeling and Discover Cayman Tour - G16"

A while back I read a magazine article that named Stingray City one of the Caribbean's 10 best shore excursions. How could we pass it up? With five Stingray City excursions to choose from, we settled on one that included a tour of the island's sights. We were going to stop in Hell, race around a turtle farm, hug a stingray, and down a shot of rum cake.

Hell is a field filled with jagged rock formations, and a classic tourist trap. The souvenir shop offers a hellish selection of tacky merchandise, hawked by devilishly-costumed clerks spouting really bad "hell" puns. Give us the tasteful merchandise and low-pressure salesmanship at Chester and Hester's DinoRama!

Next, on to the Cayman Turtle Farm, where large concrete tanks provide crowded homes to too many stew pot-bound sea turtles. Yes, you get to see lots of these marvelous creatures, including some endangered varieties being nurtured back from the brink for release back into the wild, but for the most part, this is a commercial farm. Add a gift shop, and what more can I say?

Yo ho! The Pirates of the Caribbean must have been storing rum cake in those big barrels. The cake Blackbeard's Rum Cake Factory douses with the local rum is tasty, but nothing special. Still, this tourist trap generously doles out free samples without high-pressure sales tactics. Do these cakes count towards my duty-free liquor allowance?

Stingray City was by far the best part of our Cayman experience. Unless the lure of the island's legendary coral reefs draw you elsewhere, give this one a shot. Stingray City is a shallow sand bar way out in the middle of a huge bay. Guests don mask and snorkel (if desired), and climb from the boat right into the waist-high water for their encounter with the stingrays. Crew members distribute sliced squid to use as "bait." These wild rays have become willing partners in the enterprise -- anything for a free handout (think: pigeons in the park).

Rays swim among the guests, brushing past legs, sucking bait out of loosely closed hands, and tolerating all sorts of petting zoo behavior. While the squeamish need some time to get used to the activity, eventually everyone becomes captivated by this up-close and personal encounter with these very gentle, odd creatures.

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Impressions of Cozumel
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We chose another all-day excursion for our first visit to this Mexican island. The Magic docked at a delightfully modern wharf facility, pleasant enough for anyone interested in a few hours of dining and drinking ashore with a bit of shopping on the side. It wouldn't qualify as an authentic island experience, but it also feels very safe and secure. However, we were headed for Cozumel's outback!

Shore Excursion - Cozumel "Tropical Jeep Safari Tour - CV09"

If you miss Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, this excursion is for you! A pair of safari-clad Mexican guides will lead you on a drive-it-yourself jeep ride. You'll tour the outback of downtown Cozumel and zip through the island's rural midsection, finally arriving at its eastern shore for a kidney-rattling ride over sand, rock and beach scrub to visit a Mayan ruin and enjoy a delightful lunch at a secluded beach.

The tour departs from the parking lot behind the Punta Langosta Mall and cruise pier. We, honorary Adventurers all, are assigned four-to-a-jeep. Off we go, about 18 jeeps strong, through the back streets of metropolitan Cozumel.

Don't forget to wave to the waifs and dodge their doggies as you make your way through dusty neighborhoods where the homes are under perpetual construction, thanks to memberships in the Concrete Block of the Month Club. Our guides keep our convoy together as we negotiate traffic lights, sleeping mutts and other inconveniences, until we finally emerge from the city and out onto the open, two-lane road.

After driving a fair distance our guides pull into "Pee Pee Station," our designated rest stop (and tourist trap). Now, when our guides first briefed us back in town, they mentioned the critical importance of the rest stop at "pee pee station," as there are no facilities at the beach. But, "Pee Pee station?" We thought they were being cute.

Well, the freshly painted sign atop the freshly stuccoed shop said, "Pee Pee Station." Its colorful, cartoon logo depicted a bipedal iguana clad in sombrero, serape, and huaraches, uninhibitedly relieving himself. Fortunately, the free rest rooms were no worse than some airport facilities we've visited, and the merchandise wasn't too tacky. And then, we were off! A few miles later we took a hard left onto a dusty dirt track, and the real adventure was underway.

Now, when we chose this excursion, we imagined a ride through lush, leafy jungles, until we'd finally emerge into a forest clearing filled with ancient ruins, sorta like the Jungle Cruise. What we got was more like Kilimanjaro Safari -- hot, dry scrublands, and jouncy-bouncy roadways. Where were the radio reports from Simba One on the status of Little Red? With fits, starts and stops we drove an incredibly twisting, rutted, dusty road parallel to the shoreline and about 100 yards inland from the rolling surf, catching occasional glimpses of alternately rocky and sandy beaches through gaps in the dunes and vegetation.

Finally, we arrived at our destination. Ruins? This was a Mayan beach cabana -- foot-thick masonry walls enclosed an area roughly 10 feet square, the roof open to the sky, the interior filled with rubble. After a few minutes of this photo-op and soda pop stop we jumped back into our jeeps and headed to our beach break and lunch stop.

It was certainly a dandy beach -- a tall barrier dune and a broad, white sand expanse sloping down into the rugged surf on the eastern edge of the island. A small forest of green canvas beach umbrellas sheltered colorful Mexican beach blankets, and the commissary crew was off under a large tent grilling meat. The surf was up (fantastic body surfing) and the water felt perfect after our hot, dusty expedition. After a quarter-hour of cavorting in the waves we dried off and headed across the blistering sand in search of victuals. They were serving-up very tasty fajitas, quesadillas, guacamole and all the trimmings. We pigged-out, then it was time to saddle up.

On the way back I surrendered the wheel to the other couple in our jeep, a fun-loving, outdoorsy 60-something pair from Chicago. Heaven knows, the gentleman tried very hard to drive gently, but Jennifer and I bounced around the back seat like a couple of superballs. While I can't say that our intrepid driver had a maniacal look on his face, I couldn't stop thinking of Mr. Toad.

We were very happy when we finally hit the paved road; even happier when we staggered back towards the Magic, bone-weary, but very satisfied with our Mexican adventure.

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Dave Marx is co-author (with Jennifer Watson and his daughter Allie) of the PassPorter Walt Disney World guidebook, and is also co-author (with Jennifer Watson and Mickey Morgan) of the soon-to-be-released PassPorter's Field Guide to the Disney Cruise Line and its Caribbean Ports of Call. He can often be found at http://www.passporter.com

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The first article of the Sailing with the Disney Cruise Line series (Issue #144, 6/25/02) provided a history of the Disney Cruise Line (DCL), discussed the different types of cruises offered by Disney and described how to choose a stateroom. The second (Issue #152, 8/31/02) addressed weather, getting to and parking at the Port, staying in the area, and most importantly the cost of a cruise. The third (Issue #157, 9/24/02) discussed packing, check-in, reservations on board, the safety drill and Sail Away party. The fourth (Issue #166, 11/26/02) discussed shopping at the Disney Magic's Ports of Call.

All of our Disney Cruise Line information, including the previous features articles, is available at: http://allears.net/cruise/cruise.htm

Want to book a Disney Cruise? Visit the All Ears® exclusive travel affiliate: www.MouseEarVacations.com

 


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Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.