Friday, April 20, 2018

Cruising into 2018

Jared and I took a cruise in the western Caribbean in 2012 for our honeymoon--15 years and 5 children later. This was our first ever trip alone as a married couple that wasn't tied to a work conference or job interview. To say we had a BLAST is a gross understatement. Part of me wished we had done something like this sooner. But part of me was grateful that we got to go when we did because, unlike a genuine honeymoon, we had 15 years of knowing each other really well and I think that made it even more special. That said, I think I would advise young couples to try and get away just the two of them sooner rather than later after the honeymoon is over. It can do wonders for your relationship. If the stars align with babysitters for the kids (which it didn't for us), make the sacrifice of time and money. I could go on and on about our cruise. It was so rejuvenating (especially leaving the cold and dreary Portland area and going to the tropical destinations) and I'm so grateful my mom held down the fort and worked miracles for us while we were gone. One of the excursions we booked and the one I was most excited about was swimming with dolphins in Cozumel and wow!! It did not disappoint. I told Jared I wanted to bring the kids back someday and give them that same opportunity. When we arrived home, we told the kids all about the excursion and they (Jake-13, Cooper-10, Karcyn-6, Calvin-4, JJ-6 months :) were stoked with the idea of being able to swim with dolphins, too. We told them it would require sacrifices though. We wouldn't be able to go on any other family vacations until then in order to save up for it. No more Mariners baseball games (usually an overnight in Seattle). They would grow up without going to other popular family destinations: no Great Wolf Lodge, no Disney Land, no Lego Land, etc. We didn't count camping together or any day trips we would do when visiting with family. We calculated it would probably take about 5+ years to save up for it and the timing would work perfectly since it would be Jake's senior year of high school and JJ would be old enough (we hoped!) to swim with dolphins.

Fast forward to the summer of 2017. It was time to start booking the cruise that we had been scrimping and saving for--planned for spring break in March 2018. Jared's dad, however, had just begun to get very ill, very quickly, with what seemed like cancer. As we looked at the prices for March, and even though I tend to estimate high, we found the prices more than we expected. Just for kicks and giggles, I looked at the costs to cruise over Christmas break and they were less. Not much, but it was hundreds of dollars and when you're counting pennies, every penny matters! We toyed with the idea of going over Christmas instead. Jared thought with his dad as ill as he was, he might not make it to March anyway, so going earlier could be a good thing. So we booked our cruise for December 31st for the 7 of us and my parents who we invited to come along. In all the traveling and experiences they've had all over the world, they have never been on a cruise! Well, my dad says he's already been on a big boat and it wasn't all that enjoyable. I told him his days on an aircraft carrier with stinky Navy guys didn't count!

We booked our cruise on the Liberty of the Seas departing out of Galveston, Sun. Dec 31st. When counting our blessings about the move we made from Oregon to Texas, this was a big one. We saved thousands of dollars on the cost of the cruise in airfare, hotel stays and taxi rides because we are only a two hour drive away from the port. We are most grateful for that "hidden" blessing.

We are big planners and play it SAFE when it comes to cruise excursions. I know many people (including friends) who just book something when they get off the boat. That's a bit of a risk because any excursion, not endorsed by or set up through the cruise line can't be guaranteed by the ship, which takes into account safety and should you get stuck somewhere and delayed getting back, the ship will not wait for you. So yeah. Maybe when I've been on 10+ cruises, I'll think about booking excursions differently. But this cruise was our one-time shot as a family and we weren't going to chance anything! After talking to the kids, these were the excursions we decided to do. My parents said they didn't care so long as they were with us!
*Cozumel, Mexico--Dolphin Push Pull with Manatee encounter and buffet lunch
*Roatan, Honduras--Maya Key Private Island Resort with lunch
*Puerto Costa Maya, Mexico--Jeep Tour and Beach break with lunch

The last excursion we were kind of wishy washy on. For starters, I didn't want to go to Mexico again. We wanted to go to Belize and had planned on it. But sadly, when we went to look at the cruise options again before booking it, we discovered there were no longer any itineraries that included Belize during the times we were going. Such a bummer. I guess the kids and I wouldn't know any differently anyway. However, there wasn't much that interested us in Costa Maya that the entire party, ages 76 to 6, could do. JJ's height kept us from some activities, including ziplining. We wanted to do all our excursions together so that was the priority. Interestingly enough, I was visiting with my good friend, Mel, at school, in November, when she told me they just got back from a cruise. I asked about her ports and she mentioned they went to Costa Maya. I told her how we were a little disappointed in the options there and her face lit up. She said we HAD to do the excursion they did--touring the Mayan ruins at Chaccoben. She said her boys (the ages of Calvin and JJ) loved it and they could climb the ruins and then snorkel and see other ruins underwater. But the lunch buffet was to die for! She said you rode on a very nice charter bus with a tour guide. After our conversation, I went right home and looked it up. It would be about a $40-50 price increase for each of us to do it, but after seeing pictures and hearing about Mel's experience, it was a no-brainer. Jared agreed so I called Royal Caribbean and changed our excursion and we started getting REALLY excited!

At Thanksgiving, we were gathered with other families in the area at the church for a large pot luck dinner. That's when Jake learned his friend Chance (who is in another ward) and his family were booked on the SAME cruise as we were! Talk about a fun, little, crazy coincidence--to unexpectedly have friends on your first time cruise. The Millers had just moved into the stake that summer, so we didn't know them that well, and had their family over one evening in December so we could chat and get to know them, especially if we were going to run into them on the boat! ;)

As our trip drew near and winter settled in, I started to worry about the things that could go wrong. We have been dreaming about this trip and waiting and saving for so long. I hated to have such grand expectations and hopes. I know better than that. But I did. While I was really hoping for warm weather for my children, I was more worried about us getting sick. The flu was hitting our area in Texas really hard. I was worried about the stomach virus (which seems to run more rampant on ships anyway) and of course, getting influenza wouldn't be a picnic either. So I started praying. Hard. And at the beginning of December, I fasted. I fasted that we would be healthy and that we would be spared sicknesses of any kind because of the once-in-a-lifetime status of this trip. In fact, I told Heavenly Father that I was totally okay with my kids getting sick, but pled that it would be AFTER we were home. I'm sure He was sick of hearing from me that day. But that was the desire of my heart. I also prayed that the weather would be nice. :) After that, it was out of my hands.

Jake already had his passport, but we had to get passports for the rest of the kiddos. We decided on the passport cards, which are significantly cheaper, and work for *every* passport need except international flight--which we do not anticipate doing in the next five years with our kids.

About a week or so prior to our cruise departure, Jared was watching Fox News. He called from the room and asked what the name of the excursion was that we'd be doing in Costa Maya. I reminded him and he said, "Look." Fox News was reporting on a big accident with a Royal Caribbean bus full of tourists on its way to that very place. Twelve people died, five were Americans. So sad. But we certainly weren't going to let that stop us from going. Two days before our departure, however, Jared received a mass email from Royal Caribbean informing us that our excursion to Chaccoben had been canceled. Dang. Now we had to find something else. We were looking forward to seeing the Mayan ruins. Jake and Cooper are both studying the Book of Mormon in seminary this year and Karcyn had studied Mexico in Social Studies. We thought that would be a pretty meaningful stop for them. So we looked at other Mayan tours. There was one that was 6 hours total and took you to one site. Then there was one that was 8 hours total and you went to two different sites. The day of that excursion was also my Dad's birthday, so I thought that if we're already on a bus for six hours, what's two more? It came with a box lunch, too. So that was helpful. We decided to go for it. Fingers crossed the kids would be okay on the bus.

Packing for this trip took a whole day, not counting the months and months of buying things we needed slowly over time. Oi. I was jealous of my parents who were already done and ready to go. My mom explained it was a lot different to pack for two than seven. I kept thinking I was forgetting something and sure hoped not!! This was the first time taking kids with us on a trip where you couldn't just run to the store if you need something.

We managed to get by with three big bags and three smaller ones. One tip I found that was helpful, is to roll your clothes. And I arranged the kids' clothes in sets (shorts/capris, shirt, underwear, socks) for each day and rolled them that way. So no digging around for things. It all came in one package deal per day. That proved to be a life saver, especially with limited storage space in your cabins.

We had lanyards with a water-proof plastic pouch that the kids could put their sea passes in. I put bright orange duct tape on the handles of our luggage so we could spot it easily. We made signs for each cabin and put magnetic strips on the back so we could hang them on the doors to make them easier to spot when coming down the loooonnng hallway. Mom and Dad would be in their own cabin. Jared and I would share with Karcyn and JJ. Jake, Coop, and Calvin would be in the third.

I wrote the words, then had my resident artist, Karcyn, design the picture for our sign. I think it's fabulous!!
I had Calvin design the one for his cabin. (Hahahaha!)
We had our parking passes, we had our IDs and passports. We had all the pre-printed check-in forms except for Jared's. For some reason, his would not print even after calling and spending hours on the phone, multiple times, trying to get that figured out. Royal Caribbean couldn't explain it either. My concern was they wouldn't let Jared board because of it, but we got the assurance that worse case scenario, they would just have Jared fill something out at the terminal.

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 31st--Departing Galveston
The long awaited day finally arrived!! We decided to leave around 8:30. Before we left, we read scriptures and prayed. And we tried to prepare  our kids for the worst. We had been watching the weather at our destination ports and it wasn't looking favorable at all. Rain, rain, rain. Dang it. But we told them this cruise would be what we made of it and our attitudes are the only thing we can control. And that this would be our first and likely last true vacation we would have as a complete family until who knew when. And we hoped for the best.

We drove our suburban down to the port and my parents were behind us in our civic. Parking was easy to find and very well directed. It was SO exciting to see the massive ship just sitting there waiting for us!
We got to the terminal a little before 11am which was perfect timing. It was a bit crazy trying to figure out where to go after getting dropped off by the shuttle. Tons of people were milling around everywhere. I wasn't sure if they were getting off the ship or getting on. We were a little "lost" until we found a porter who took our bags for us and told us to go inside. A few of us hit the bathrooms and then we got in the long lines where they checked our passports/IDs. Then we went through security. Both of these sections went relatively quickly. I mean, they've got this down to a science. Inside the terminal where we got our sea passes, it really opened up and didn't seem crowded at all. Considering there were seven in our party, this part went fairly quickly, too. I was worried about losing IDs and passport cards. It was super handy having my parents there so my kids could have a seat and not stand around with us. :) Jared did have to fill out a form before being cleared and there was a slight goof between him and JJ because of their names. I was envisioning long lines, masses of people and a long wait for the kids during this part. But all-in-all, it was smooth sailing! 
All aboard! Jake and JJ walking the gangway with Jared, Grandma Lee and Calvin up ahead.
As soon as we got our pictures taken and linked up with our sea passes, we headed to the Windjammer for lunch! We were told to talk to the chef about GF needs for Karcyn. I also called the cruise line ahead of time to make sure I could bring some GF snacks on board to use as needed and on our excursions. They said as long as they were in their original packaging, that was fine. We managed to find some GF cookies while we waited to speak to the chef. He told us that we could come find him or another and tell them what she wanted and they would make it for her. So sweet. She felt like pizza, so they said they'd make her a GF pizza.
We told the kids, the boys especially, that the ALL YOU CAN EAT food would be one of the highlights of the trip. This is Jake with his second round for lunch :)
Karcyn and the very kind chef the first day in the Windjammer.
He was so sweet and brought her not just a GF pizza, but GF fries and fresh fruit, jello and a GF dessert.
We had to muster up at a spot in the dining room. Which was nice. When Jared and I went on our cruise, we had to go outside and it was cold and windy in New Orleans at the end of February.
Jared and I watched the boat leave the port when we were on our first cruise and we wanted the kids to have that same experience. After lunch we went to find our cabins on deck 8, our luggage already waiting for us, and then headed up to the very top of the bow. This is where miniature golf was--of course, in the windiest spot of the whole ship. JJ was mad that he couldn't play golf right at that moment. So it must be time to take a family picture! It was cold up there. A high of 50 degrees not counting the wind chill! 
We waited and waited for the boat to leave. It was well after our departure time of 4:15. In fact, the Carnival ship that was in front of us had long since left (you can barely make it out in the distance). That's when Cooper said our friends, the Frosts, were on that boat for the week. I had no idea! They were going to the Eastern Caribbean. While we were waiting, we actually spotted some dolphins jumping down below in the bay.
The main reason why we wanted to be up there with the kids was so they could experience the earth shaking, ear piercing explosion of the horn when the boat was ready to pull away from the dock. It penetrates your entire body! Because of the delay, and the cold and wind, we were turning to walk away and abandon that idea when all of a sudden the horn got us!! We seriously were forced dead in our tracks (after screaming in surprise)! Yay! Mission accomplished. :) We were finally on our way.

Good bye, Galvaston!

We chose to do My Time Dining at 5:30pm each night so the kids weren't up super late waiting to eat. It was the perfect time for all of us. When we arrived at our dining room on deck 4, we told them we were a party of nine and we waited a moment to be seated.  We were lead to one of the back sections of the dining room, in a corner, off to the side, by a big window. Being in a corner is actually the perfect place for our crew. 

The first night--FORMAL attire (which translates to church clothes for our family). AND it was New Year's Eve. What a treat that there were hats and tiaras and noise makers and streamers at the table for our enjoyment. The menus were rolled up in scrolls and tied off with ribbon. 

My beautiful parents. I'll never forget the time I was at work right after I got married, showing the gals my wedding photos. One older lady pointed out my parents in the wedding line and asked, "Who are they?" I told her they were my parents. She said, "No way. That can't be." I asked her why not and she replied, completely serious, "They're too good looking." 
 JJ looking out the window.
The seating at the table was very unconventional, but it worked...going clockwise, Calvin at one head of the table, an empty chair (probably a good thing), Karcyn, Cooper, Grandma, Grandpa, JJ, Jared, me and Jake.

I was actually not feeling very well, nor very steady on my feet. I stumbled to our table. Some waiter saw me struggle and joked they needed to stop giving me alcohol since I was so tipsy. Just feeling the waves a bit, I guess. I had my sea patch on, too.
Calvin and his steak tar-tar appetizer. He ate it all!
Karcyn and her first experience with lobster tail. She loved it. Our waiter and his assistant were so good with her. They brought her special GF bread while the rest of us had rolls. And helped us find the foods that she could eat.
Cooper had some pork belly or big hunk of bacon for his appetizer and rib eye for dinner.
JJ chose the pasta, but like usual, found something to be picky about. They even brought him special chicken nuggets, but they were too special (read: fancy) so he wouldn't touch them. Ugh. I swear he'll be the first kid on a cruise surrounded by food to starve.
But he liked clinking "Cheers!" with the fancy glasses. :)
Calvin enjoying his pasta.
Our waiters were AMAZING.
Yay us. 
JJ getting in the party spirit!
Dessert!! This was Jared's cheesecake, which I'm not fond of. But it was pretty so I took a picture. 
This was my dessert. Super chocolately and light at the same time. I loved the "Happy New Year!" chocolate candy on top.
We learned that if we wanted Cristian as our waiter again, we would need to request his table. I had no idea. I just figured we were assigned that table the whole week. We said we would definitely do that. Cristian got the menu for the next evening and went through it with Karcyn to make sure he knew what she could have and wanted and would be ready.

I hated to admit it, but I was feeling increasingly sick, and just wanted to get back to the cabin to sleep. My head hurt and my stomach felt iffy. So we all went back to our cabins. Jake and Coop stayed up late in their cabin (which was adjoining to ours), but the rest of us crashed. Not sure what my parents did. They're kind of party animals. :)

We all met up for breakfast in the Windjammer that morning. I was feeling better. My headache was gone. Karcyn looked a little pale though. We didn't get sea patches for the kids--most don't have a problem with sea sickness. We brought some stuff to give them though, just in case. I gave her a drammamine (Jared said the non-drowsy isn't very effective) after breakfast and she was feeling a little tired, so we went to the library to find her a book and then headed up to miniature golf where the little boys were playing with Grandma. JJ was addicted. Grandma even took him up there before breakfast.
It was SOOO cold--only a high of 68 degrees which didn't account for the windchill, but the kids didn't really seem to care. They certainly made the best of it!

Grandma said that when she and JJ were playing a game, he was losing, so he announced, "Let's just call it a tie." Hahaha!
Cooper found us and joined in on a game.
Karcyn was getting cold, so we went to the Windjammer to hang out and read and watch the water without getting blown away. Plus she looked a little pale. If she was sea sick, she sure didn't complain.
Rough seas.
Jake found the Millers--Chance and Emma and played a game for awhile.
Karcyn and I went up to the Adventure Ocean for kids so I could sign the three little kids up to participate in this service during the week. Then we went back to our cabin so she could rest. This is what an interior cabin for four looks like. The queen bed and two pull-down twin bunks above us.
Mom and Dad bought us these bright green shirts that say: Keep Calm we're on a family vacation. They were a good idea to wear that day on the ship. In fact, on our way to the dining room, a lady stopped Jared and wanted to take a picture of his shirt and ended up getting a picture of Jake, Jared, Calvin and Cooper--four strange guys in green shirts. :)
JJ is super picky. But we were told if you ask for something even off the menu, the waiters will likely get it for you. JJ likes strawberries (or he did at the time) so we asked if he could have those for his appetizer and voila! That's what he got! Every night!
Dad/Grandpa Lee eating his escargot. Garlic, butter snails.
Calvin second guessing his seafood pasta complete with half-shell oysters. Bahaha!
This cake was waiting for my parents when they arrived in their state room on Sunday (we had chocolate dipped strawberries in our cabin for Karcyn's sake--and we gobbled them up). It's in "celebration" of Dad's 76th birthday on Thursday, January 4th. So we decided to eat it for dessert that night. The pin-stripe papery wrapper is actually chocolate!
Karcyn and Cristian--he is from Malta and has a 9 year old son. He won't be home until March.
One of the best simple pleasures about cruising are these adorable towel animals that are left in your staterooms in the evening. The kids thought they were epic and we had THREE different ones to enjoy every night!

A dog.
This animal has caused a house divided--some say it's a swan, some say a snake. What say ye?

Today was the day! The port I was looking forward to the most--swimming with dolphins. We all got changed into our bathing suits and water shirts, lathered up in sunscreen and brought our towels from the ship and a change of clothes.

The Liberty of the Seas is on the right.
While it was sunny outside, it wasn't warm. Not the tropical "I'm-in-the-Caribbean" warm. Only a high of 75 degrees. It wasn't totally freezing, but there was a cool breeze. Maybe that's also the disadvantage of cruising from a place where you're used to it being more warm than not. Perhaps 75 degrees would have felt warm if we were still living in Oregon. 
This bronze statue moves! He got us good. Doesn't he look real? I mean fake?
The kids had fun taking pictures with him. 
The bronze guy told JJ in a high pitched nasally spanglish accent, "Welcome to my country." :)
Calvin would turn it around on the other guy.
Waiting for our bus to the park.
Yay!! We're here.
We got our instructions from Pablo or Pedro. Either way, he was great. Very funny and down-to-earth. We found three lockers to put our clothes into and went to get our life jackets on and then find a group--even though we basically made up a group of our own.

We were lead by a photographer down to the dock pictured on the right. There were three different areas for three groups that stretched out to our left and we were in the middle section. 
The wind was kicking and it was cooler by the water. She took our picture before we got in. (This is a picture of a picture.) 
We slipped off our water shoes and walked down the steps into the water, which was a fenced off section of the ocean. And it was COLD! Took our breath away when we got in.

When Jared and I were there in 2012, our trainer allowed us to take pictures with our own camera, but they were really cracking down on that now. Cooper had a go-Pro he had forgotten about and they made him put it away. I understand they make their money off pictures. But it's not like we wouldn't have bought some from them because the photographer has a much better angle and camera. Not to mention she knows what's coming up and can anticipate the shots. 

We bought the first picture they took of our group on the dock before we got in. (See above.) After our excursion, they told me the cost for the pictures from our session--$470!!!!!!! Not kidding. Five years ago, it was $99. I was prepared to pay $99 now. Not $470. Apparently it was more expensive because we were a party of 9, not 2. When I refused, they came down a little bit on the price. I kept refusing. So they came down some more. I still refused. They came down a smidge more and I still said I couldn't do it. I think they talked to their manager at that point and gave me a final offer of $250 for 25 pictures. STILL too much. So we couldn't have any memories of this day which made me really, really, really sad. But I just couldn't justify that much money. However, when I got home, I noticed there was a bright ad stapled to my receipt for the one picture I bought (this picture is just a bit larger than a 5x7 and it cost $25). This notice mentioned a web site for a final chance at our memories. So I checked it out and found all of our pictures. Turns out, they were still $25 per picture. But as I played around and added some to the cart, I noticed the price went down. The more you ordered, the cheaper they were per picture. I got it down to less than $5 each! Now that's something I could do. We had some cruise money left over, so I ordered the ones that I wanted and I was given the fifty digital copies. they are!!

Wooo-doggie!! Trying to get used to that water!
We were just waiting for our trainer's instructions so we could get started with the push-pull experience.
We were told our dolphin, Kathy, was a bit particular with tourists--that she doesn't have much patience. Hmm. Probably not the best fit with kids!
Cooper was the first in our group to do the 'pull'. He had to swim out a bit and then put his feet beneath him, cross his arms on his chest and when given the signal, extend his right arm out so that when Kathy came around from behind him on her back, he could reach out and grab her left fin, then the right and get pulled back to the dock. He did great!
Karcyn was the first to do the 'push'. She had to swim out with the boogie board, turn around and keep both legs locked straight and tight while she waited for Kathy to come up from behind and put her nose on one of Karcyn's feet and then push her, with tremendous force, back to the dock! Karcyn did awesome!!
The rest of us were lined up at the dock, standing on a wiry platform in our bare feet with water up past our waists. The wind was blowing which meant the waves were kicking and we were getting tossed into the back of the dock. It was really hard to keep our balance and we got slammed more than we didn't. You had to hold on to the wire fence behind you with one hand, but the water was strong and kept knocking us all around, especially the younger kids. One of us had to hold on to JJ the entire time. That said, we were excited to watch each member of our family participate, so, for the most part, that helped keep our minds off the cold and the strenuous exercise required to keep from floating away. Honestly, not one of our kids complained about the cold water while we were doing this excursion. Fortunately, the trainer kept us moving right along. If one did the push, the next one in line was getting ready to do the pull and we alternated until we got to the end and then switched. When the front of the line had done both experiences, then they got to dance, kiss and pose with Kathy. Our trainer had to hold on to us by our life jackets though because we couldn't stabilize ourselves--at least not efficiently enough for pictures. :) 

Hold on tight, Calvin!
Cooper dancing with Kathy.
Cooper's second kiss from a girl. :) (The first was from an actress at a cabin dinner theater in Alaska when he was five.)
Pure joy!
Kisses for Karcyn.
Grandma was a pro!!
So cute, Calvin!
The water was rough and for some of us it was hard to see the fin Kathy offered for the pull. Fortunately, she believed in second chances. But not thirds and JJ didn't get to do it. :( My heart sank. He only had the push left to do and, in my opinion, it's equally difficult. We were so bummed and prayed he'd still have a good time.
Looking back, I realize that just these interactions below, might be really scary for a six-year-old. But JJ was SO brave and such a good sport when the pull experience didn't work out for him. It was a proud mommy moment.
Jared's turn.
My turn.
Jake's turn. 
Grandma getting her sugar. :)
Karcyn was so fun to watch doing the pull. Kathy got totally above the surface with her, too! Karcyn loves animals. I'm thrilled she got to have this opportunity!
Kisses for Grandpa. He's held bats, lion cubs, snakes, rock chucks and a plethora of other animals and creepy crawly things. But I think this was his first time with a dolphin. That makes me happy, too.
Jared killed Kathy. ;) She was being temperamental after Jared's pull, so we had to get a new dolphin (her boyfriend apparently) Ramses, to give Ms. Kathy "a moment."
These next three pictures are evidence of God's love for JJ. I truly believe the push is harder than the pull--which he couldn't do. But when it was his turn for the push, JJ took the boogie board, reminding me a little bit of a determined Nemo, and kicked out into open water. He managed to turn himself around so he was facing the dock amid the choppy waves and then--we waited. Trying to keep ourselves steady on the wire ledge, Jared and I were praying in our hearts and pleading under our breath that he'd be able to do this. The trainer sent Kathy off to find JJ, then all of a sudden JJ was flying on top of the water!! He was pushed so hard, he got air!! Oh my goodness, that smile, though! Hands down--best part of the whole trip. Only JJ and Heavenly Father and Kathy know what happened in the water that day. But I know that we witnessed a miracle.
So exciting!
Cute, Coop!
You don't realize the power a dolphin has until it's launching you through the water like a torpedo!
Grandma's turn for the pull!
BEST.REACTION.EVER. Grandma should be the model for Dolphin Discovery's advertisements! Haha!!
Grandpa is always up for an adventure!
Calvin did a great job, too.
And then it was time to say goodbye to Kathy. 

And get out of the water. But we weren't totally finished yet. We had to walk up to the top of the dock we came out on and then down to another area next door to have our manatee experience. It was fine and well and such, but after getting out of the water, JJ was cold and not very happy. Quite frankly, I wasn't far behind him in that department, so I offered to take him out and get dressed while the others finished up. 

He's much happier when he's warm! My caboose!
And my engine!

After we got changed, we tried their buffet lunch and had some time to spare before we caught the last sea lion show.
Grandpa taking a picture of me while I take a picture of them! We were a brightly colored group!
What a fun job that would be to work with these animals! 
Saying hello!!

Being bashful.
Ta da! (I sure can't do that!)
Calvin, Karcyn, JJ and Jake decided to get their picture taken with the sea lion giving them kisses. We saw the photographs later and Calvin's was the best one, but we didn't get it.
Karcyn had a funny, unsure expression on her face. Not what I expected from her.
This cracks me up--the sea lion leaning in for a kiss and JJ leaning away from him! :)
And then there's Jake--the sea lion can't even reach his cheek! Too funny.
It was time to catch our bus back to the port. Santa had brought each of the kids spending money for the cruise. They could use it on the boat or in the ports or both. But once it was gone, it was gone. And if there was any left, it was theirs to keep. Karcyn and JJ each bought a stuffed animal (a dolphin that chirps and a lizard, respectively) and Jake and Coop bought decorated skulls. Calvin wasn't sure what to get yet.

A quick pic before we heading out!
JJ putting his new lizard up next to a replica of a green lizard. :)
Calvin and JJ posing with the cut-out prop. 
Grandma, Grandpa and Coop waiting for our ride!
Jake wanted to interact with the Bronze man before we left for good. Seriously--that is quite the costume. I wonder how much time it takes to get ready each day. He was a fun surprise!
This floating guy's set up was really cool to stare at. I never figured it out, but my kids said they did!
Jared took Calvin to the stores around the plaza so he could figure out what he wanted to buy. Calvin found a place with chess sets first. He looked at one and it was, of course, more than he had to spend. Then he saw another one that had a storage drawer under the board and he liked that one better. But it was $35--also over budget. Jared didn't talk to the store owners, just looked at Calvin and said, "You have $20." Then one of the owners piped up and said, "We can do it for $20." But then, in true Calvin fashion, he stroked his chin thoughtfully with his fingers as if weighing his options and said, "I'll think about it" and then turned around and walked out with Jared trailing behind him. Jared thought it was the funniest thing. They walked down the plaza a little bit to see some guys painting some small decorative surf boards...most were sports related. Calvin saw one with the Dallas Cowboys on it. Those were $45-50 and Jared told Calvin the amount he had to spend. And it was like the process started all over again because the workers said they could do $20. Calvin just stood there, looking at the boards then said, "I'll think about it" and walked off. Finally, he decided he wanted the blue chess set with the drawer that the first guys offered for $20. So back they went so Calvin could verify they were still willing to sell it to him for $20. They were. He had just made his first bartering deal in Mexico! (And then Mexico sent us a letter stating Calvin wasn't allowed back in Cozumel because he's bad for their economy. Haha! :)

Back on the boat, and we hit the wall!! SO MUCH FUN!!

Cooper's climb:
Calvin's turn on the adjacent tower:
Cooper and Calvin together:
Jake scoping out the best route. The staff on Royal Caribbean are so awesome and friendly.
Cooper going up again.
The two big boys going up together.
Coming down.
Calvin gave it a try and got about halfway up before he got tired. 
Waiting to be seated for dinner.
The dining room. 
Karcyn eating her pork belly appetizer!
My citrus fruit salad.
Jake going in for his escargot.
We loved our little window to the sea. There goes another ship leaving port.
This is GG. I don't know if that's his real name or what he goes by. I think he was trying to make it sound like JJ. :) He was the head waiter and took a real interest in our family, for which we are grateful. We enjoyed his company and jokes and brain teasers. He offered to cut up Karcyn's food.
Creme brulee. Not my favorite, but it was good!
Gluten free lava cake just for Sis!
GG showing JJ a trick with toothpicks. It was cool!
GG proposed this puzzle: move only two toothpicks to get the "football" outside of the goal post. We worked on it and worked on it. He had us stumped! But now we know how to solve it ;)
This was another puzzle. Move one to make four triangles. Tricky, tricky! Think algebra! He wouldn't tell us this solution that night, but he did the next day!
The next round of towel animals! Not sure about this one.
Definitely a frog.
Playing on the new chess board.
JJ went to Adventure Ocean and got a pirate's eye patch painted on!
Calvin didn't want to go to the kids' club, so he and I went and got free snacks instead. :)

Sadly, forecast called for rain--absolutely and definitely. But we hoped it would hold. This excursion was at a private beach that we had to be ferried to. 
My crew and my heart!!
They look kind of worried. But I love that JJ sought comfort and companionship from Calvin and that Calvin gave it freely.
Grandma and Grandpa.
A shot of our ship as we ferried away.
The strip of land by parents' heads is the private island. Nice that it was so close!
Roatan is so pretty. Just wished it was sunny.
The view of our ship from the island dock.
Even in the cloudy "gloom" the island was GORGEOUS!!
Some of the adventures we could do while we were there. Notice the 'shark' encounter at 12:30!! :o
We found a lovely spot on the opposite side of the island where we had docked. The kids got right to work playing in the sand. I wasn't feeling so hot. Had a headache and my stomach was a little iffy. Coincidentally, I had put a new sea patch on that morning. I was beginning to think that the patch was causing me to feel sea sick, ironically. After the first day at sea, I felt better, thankfully. But this was another "first" day for the patch and we were starting all over again with my symptoms. I don't remember feeling yuck like this when Jared and I cruised in 2012. I wonder if the dosing on the patches has changed. I guess I have...I've definitely aged a bit since then. Oh well. It was better than being super sea sick!
Jared and Jake checking out the shoreline and water. It was not warm. We wanted to snorkel since we didn't get to in Cozumel, so we went to figure out how to rent gear--we're those tourists who don't have their own. :/ Renting snorkeling gear was $20 (plus a deposit) each to go out with a guide at the reef (to the left of this picture). It was about an hour and you had to sign up for a certain time slot. If you wanted to swim with the sharks, that was $35 more plus you had to rent the snorkel gear again because you couldn't hold on to it for the day. Bummer. That would eat up a good chunk of the big boys' spending money. So they decided to skip the sharks and just go snorkeling. Jared and I would join them.
Jake, Coop and Jared testing out their snorkeling gear before the appointed time to go to the reef.
I stayed on the beach until I had to leave because I wasn't feeling so great.
This was when we discovered our friends the Millers were also on this excursion! We moved over and made room for them on the beach with us. Jennifer told me that President Monson had passed away the day before. I was so sad, though not surprised. I asked her where she heard the news. Apparently, they were still getting texts and their brother-in-law told them. I was grateful she shared the info with us. In the picture below, Cooper is in his fins leaving the water, Karcyn is on her hands and knees in the water, JJ is in the foreground playing in the sand and Emma, Kendall (dad) and Kennedy Miller are working on building a sand sculpture.
Pretty bird just hanging out in the trees.
The private island also had a wildlife sanctuary and they allowed you to come see the animals. JJ didn't want to go so I sent the other three kids with Grandma and Grandpa. I had to stay behind to watch him.
At the end of that dock is where you get in to snorkel out to the reef. Karcyn couldn't do the animal presentation because she didn't have shoes on. Really? We're at a beach! So she came back to play in the sand. Mom stayed to watch the kids so we could do our snorkeling. I got all the way down there though and could feel how cold the water was. That, coupled with my head ache and overall ickiness and I decided to back out. I just didn't have it in me. The guys said it was fun, but definitely cold and a bit murky in the water.
People started heading up to get the free lunch (which was all gluten-free!). I sent Jared up with the other kids, and I stayed at the beach while JJ played some more. He wouldn't eat anyway. There was a line gathering and it took a long time for them to get up to the food. And in the meantime it started to rain--HARD! I got all of our bags and towels and tried to take cover under a big canopy of trees. There was a picnic table and covering not too far from our beach chairs, so I headed over that way. Other beach-goers joined me. We didn't avoid getting wet and the wind picked up. Someone had said these tropical showers don't last for very long. After about 15 minutes, I wasn't so sure. I was getting a little impatient and I wondered where the members of my party were. I finally saw Jared head over. I hadn't eaten yet and JJ was asleep, so I tried to go get my lunch--in the rain. It was very wet and breezy and anti-climatic. This isn't how I envisioned lunch. But the food was good. By the time I made it back to where we had hunkered down, the rain was coming down harder and JJ was asleep--kneeling on the bench and slumped onto the table. It was time to go.
We jumped on the ferry and went straight back to the ship. We didn't even stick around to check out the port. I guess my parents had already gone back to port after lunch and my mom said they looked around before getting on the shipo, but there wasn't much I was missing. That made me feel a little better. Plus she bought me some bright, tropical earrings, so I did have something from Roatan. :)
By the time we got back on the boat, JJ was hungry and Calvin hadn't eaten much so we headed up to the Windjammer to get fries and pizza--the lunch of champions.
Jared, Karcyn and Calvin headed to the hot tubs, but JJ decided he wanted to play in the kid's water area. You've got to be kidding me. It was freezing in and out of the water!
Props to him, though. He went down that water slide two or three times. I was shivering just watching him. 
Then he decided maybe the hot tub wouldn't be so bad after all.
Calvin wanted to try the big water slides. I stood at the spectator spot to watch him come down.
After we were all fed and dried, we headed back to the rock wall. Yeah!
Jake coming back down from the top.
Cooper going up.
JJ wanted to give it a try, too. We checked with him several times to make sure he really wanted to and he said yes. So we said okay. He IS a mountain goat at home, after all, but this would be his first time on a wall.
Those little legs and cute!
Way to reach, JJ!
Getting higher.
And then he got stuck. ;) And kind of panicked. He didn't cry or scream, but his chin was quivering and you could tell he didn't know what to do and was worried. 
We tried to tell him to keep reaching or to just let go. But he was too scared to do either.
And he had to be rescued. :) Which was A-OK. I'm proud of him for trying.
Yay for awesome Royal Caribbean staff. 
We got tickets to the Ice Extravaganza show, but it was during our normal dinner time, so we'd have to skip the dining room and catch dinner after the show up in the Windjammer. We were sad to miss our table staff at 261. Hopefully we could resume the next night.

Waiting for the show to start...most of our group was asleep! Playing on a beach, snorkeling, and rock climbing (not to mention climbing lots and lots of stairs) can sure take it out of you. The show was awesome! Amazing the things they could do in a very small space. We all enjoyed it very much.
Our little pirate too tired to eat dinner.
The towel animals for the night! Funny how such a small thing could bring such anticipation and pleasure! A turtle!
A monkey on its tummy?

THURSDAY, JANUARY 4th. COSTA MAYA, MEXICO (and Grandpa Lee's 76th birthday!!)
A beautiful, sunny day in Costa Maya, but still cool. 75 degrees at best. And we would be in the jungle for our excursion. We were all sporting our bright green family t-shirts so we wouldn't lose anyone.
JJ was worried his cold-blooded lizard would freeze without the sun, so Calvin held him up in the sunlight for him. :)
All aboard the charter buses. It was the nine of us and maybe five or six more. Not a big group. They gave each of us a brown paper bag when we got on. In it was a small water bottle, an apple, a granola bar, a chocolate candy from Mexico and a mayonnaise packet. My mom and I busted up over the latter. What on earth do we do with the mayo? Is it for the granola bar? Is it a Mexican thing? Karcyn's bag (for her GF needs--which we had to notify them of before we began the cruise) had two apples and a banana in it. Fortunately, I had brought many of the GF snacks I had packed from home for this very reason. This excursion also came with a box lunch, but we didn't know what would be in it. 

JJ sat with me. 
And he used my phone camera to take cool pictures of his lizard. :)
We've decided Mexican drivers are a wee bit crazy on the road. This was how close we were passing another tour bus!
Our first stop, two hours later was the Mayan civilization of Dzibanche. This area, deep in the jungle, was impressive to see. Especially since it gives us a new perspective on what life might have been like for the people we read about in the Book of Mormon. Here's the wikipedia info on Dzibanche.
Up we went!
Those steps are WAY steeper than they look. You pretty much go hand over foot on your way up.
Made it!
The view!
I'm not afraid of heights, but the area at the top was not very wide and the way going down made your heart skip a beat. I'm smiling in this picture, but it was a nervous smile as I held on to Cooper to make sure he didn't get too close to the edge.
Just look at how steep that is! The tour guide (bottom left of this picture) called us the Green Family because of our shirts. Seriously, it was one of the single best things we did! Great way to spot members of our group--anywhere!
Karcyn IS afraid of heights. But she did it. Up and down all on her own!
Love this picture!
Conquered a fear of heights at the Temple of the Owl pyramid.
The Houghs were in Dzibanche! :)
Cooper having fun with the camera--sporting his new Panama that he bartered for in Cozumel. He's proud of the fact it was priced at $15 and he walked away with it paying only $10.
It's amazing how big the area was. Yet hidden, too, when you got above the treeline.
The palm trees in Texas are scrawny minis compared to the ones in Mexico--they're enormous!
As we boarded the bus for our next stop, the bus driver gave each of us another water bottle and our tour guide was reaching into a cooler and handing out, I kid you not, a sandwich in a zip top baggie. The sandwich consisted of two slices of white bread and a slice of ham. When we were in our seats, I I shot my parents a questioning look and whispered that I thought we were getting a boxed lunch on the tour. Dad looked at the sandwich then quipped, "Well, the sandwich did come out of an ice box cooler and it's what's for lunch." Touche, Dad. This made me doubly grateful I brought GF snacks for Karcyn or she would have had nothing but the fruit, which worked, but wasn't enough. As we were looking over our sandwiches, realization struck me and my mom. The mayonnaise! It was for our sandwich--not our granola bars! :) Haha! (They could have mentioned that...or given it to us with the sandwich maybe.)

The Mayan site of Kohunlich had more of a "city" feel to me because of the way it was laid out and there was more of it. (Info on Kohunlich.) It was fascinating and impressive to see all of the different mounds and ruins that remain and to try and visualize what it was like for those who lived there.
Temple of the Masks
We went up an early classic pyramid flanked by masks. 
Grandparents and grandkids!
There goes the Green Family. Haha!
This stadium was the kids' favorite. The spectators would sit or stand up on the raised part (benches) and the teams would play down below there in the center. It was like a sideways basketball soccer blend where you use knees and feet and head only to get a ball through a side hoop. I'm sure there's a technical name for it. The important thing, however, is that whichever team lost--was executed!! :o Yikes! That takes sports to a whole new level! Talk about playing to win--and to live!!
And then we were back on the bus for another two hour drive. Just about everybody slept. I was a little worried about how the younger kids would do because we spent more time on the bus than we didn't. But they were champs. This was our only non-water excursion, but they didn't seem to mind at all. It held their attention enough. My only regret is that we had to get right on the boat. We didn't have any time to check out the port. I would have chanced it a little more had our boat been closer to the port. It was quite the jont down there! If I could do this excursion again, I would just do ONE ruin site. That excursion is only six hours, not eight.
As we boarded the ship, we noticed many people with sunburns and I found myself a tad jealous. Not for the sunburns, but that they were actually in the sun. *sigh*
Back to the climbing wall!!
JJ wanted to go again. We told him if he got stuck or too tired, he just needed to let go and fall...the rope would catch him. 
And that's what he did! He made a safe landing! I think he was feeling pretty proud that he did it all by himself.
Then he wanted to go back and try the first wall he was on. Finish something he started perhaps.
But really, I think he just wanted to slowly fall back down. :)
Calvin was up next. 
Ahh! Calvin was SOO close to the top before his arms gave out.
Dinner back at table 261 with our beloved waiting staff and window.
Calvin ordered the lentil and noodle soup for his appetizer. Seriously??
And he liked it!
My chicken tandoori salad.
JJ's fancy chicken nuggets--that he wouldn't eat.
Jared's rack of lamb.
Jake's seafood platter.
GG trying to make us think about the solution to this puzzle.
And the answer!
Karcyn's surprise GF dessert!
This is another puzzle with a fish. GG challenged us to move two of the toothpicks to make the fish going the other direction. We never did figure this one out. Anyone?
Hahaha!!! Love the lizard attacking the gorilla!!
The hanging monkey!! One of my favorites!
And a bat in my parents' cabin!

Jake and Cooper waiting in line to try out the Flowrider.
Jake went first.
He did pretty good (most of it is on video), but when he was pushed back into the wall at the top, the water pulled his trunks down!! Whoops! To his credit, he had an amazingly smooth recovery!
Cooper's turn! He was on it for awhile!
Calvin got to go, too! He was a natural.
So did Jared!
And I did, too!
Cooper wanted to race Jared down the dual slides. Obviously Cooper came out first so he waited for Jared.
And waited.
Ah, there he is! Poking along like a snail.
Haha!! He's sitting in the slide pouting like a 2-year-old because he isn't moving very fast.
He actually had to scootch himself along to get out of the slide and into the pool of water.
Jared decided he wanted to try the green slide this time and without his rash guard. Sure enough, Jared flew out of there first!
There's Cooper--finally!!

We determined that green means "go!" and orange means "slow." 

This was our last formal dinner and JJ decided to build structures using his silverware and drinking glass.
Calvin trying some French onion soup. I wish he were this adventurous at home, but I'm really really pleased he totally went for it all week!
JJ being silly and hiding.
Our waiters singing "Happy Birthday" to my dad! Even though it was a day late, it was a very nice gesture.
And he got a special birthday treat with a candle. Can I go on a cruise when it's my 76th birthday? :)
Make a wish!!
Haha! A sea lion chilling in the chair in our cabin.
A puppy having fun with the TV remote.
Look at those bunny ears and eyes!!
We promised we'd take the little kids up to the arcade once before the trip was over. They were so good. They didn't complain about not getting to play in the arcade at all.

SATURDAY, January 6th. Final day at Sea and finally some sun!
Our last day on the ship! Before we were even done with breakfast, my parents had already gotten up and went on the big Tidal Wave ride five times together!! They said it was awesome. I couldn't wait to try it. Calvin and I went to do it first. Only to find out he was not heavy enough. :( Big, big bummer. He went off to the Flowrider so my mom grabbed me and we went up. Here's a description of the ride and a picture from Royal Caribbean.

Liberty of the Seas features the first Boomerang style waterslide at sea, named Tidal Wave.  The hair-raising slide features a steep drop that propels riders up a near vertical wall for a moment of weightlessness and into free fall.

Yes! There's a super steep drop! Yes! You fly up a near vertical wall! Yes! You feel a moment of weightlessness and feel like you just might go over the edge of the ship! Yes!! It's super fun! I went  2 times with my mom then 2 times with my dad and once with Jared. Jake and Cooper had already done it. They were trying out the Flowrider again with the Millers. The Tidal Wave was my favorite water adventure on the boat. Worth the climb up those many, many steps and being cold for a little bit while waiting for your turn. :) After we got the water out of our system, we got dressed and went guessed it. The Rock Wall!

Calvin hit the wall first.
I think we've created a monster! The rock wall was SO much fun! I really want to keep doing this in College Station. The kids love it. I love it. It's so good for you and so addicting!
Even Grandma wanted to give it a whirl. When I'm 72 years old I hope I have the stamina, ability and desire to do such things!
Look at her go!
Then she got stuck at the same place where JJ did. (And me, too.)
Fortunately, no one needed to rescue her. But she lost her footing briefly when she landed. Don't worry, no grandmas were harmed in the making of this memory. :)
Then there's Jake. He and Cooper are pretty quick.
That's me in the middle of the picture! I was determined to get to the top. And slowly, slowly, I went higher and higher. I couldn't believe it. The video is better. I was one reach from ringing the bell when suddenly my foot slipped out from under me, I guess. It happened so fast and startled me because one second I was on the wall with the bell just inches from my reach, the next second I was falling. Dang. I was so close!! I was kicking myself a little bit, bummed to let myself down like that. But it was exhilarating, too!
Jake trying the harder course. He didn't make it to the top, but he did some great work.
After our final climbs, Mom and I did the only natural thing to do--get ice cream to celebrate, of course!! Yay us! We are strong women!

Calvin took full advantage of the menu on our final night in the dining room and ordered not one, not two, but three entrees. The pasta, the steak and the sliders. 
GG and JJ

The kids and our awesome waiters! We appreciated them immensely! I can't imagine how it must be to serve people day in and day out, on a rocking boat, no less. The same thing for months. They knocked it out of the park for us. Truly, the entire dining room experience was one of the highlights of our cruise.
Aww, look at that dinosaur!
And this is a lamb (so say the kids).
The adjoining cabin where Jake, Cooper and Calvin slept.

My parents and Jared and I went and watched the show "Saturday Night Fever" while the kids slept or watched either "Rise of the Guardians," "Madagascar 3," "Penguins of Madagascar" or "Megamind" (Dreamworks movies) which were on a continuous loop the entire cruise! The show we saw seemed fine...what I saw of it. Everyone dozed off during "Saturday Night Fever" except Jared. Haha. Whoopsies! It's hard work playing on a cruise!

SUNDAY, January 7th. Back in Galveston
After breakfast, I headed to the towel folding class. That was fun to see the secrets behind the animals. They make it look so quick and easy.

JJ was plumb tuckered out before we even vacated our cabins. Poor kid.
Playing cards, waiting for our group to be called to disembark.
And here we are being herded like cattle. It actually didn't take as long as one would think. After we did this winding ramp, we went into a huge room to try and locate our luggage. Fortunately, I had put bright fluorescent orange duct tape on the handles of our bags, so they were easy to find. We grabbed them then got in another line to go through customs or check out. I handed the attendant two passport books and five passport cards. She called out each family member one by one to verify their name and photo. When she finished she handed me back the passports and said, "Bless you woman." :)
And it didn't take long to get a shuttle to get back to the parking lot and we were headed back to College Station. Everyone zonked. Even my parents (driving Jared's car) pulled over to get a little snooze. It was weird to be home just a couple hours later. When Jared and I disembarked in New Orleans in 2012, we had to get to the airport and check-in for our flight and then wait and fly back to Oregon. It was a whole other day of traveling with a different mode of transportation. And it was looong. I'm so grateful to be closer!
For our family home evening the next day, we went around the room four or five times sharing our favorite things about the cruise. Needless to say, we all had a fabulous time, grateful for our health and safety and memories.
I had several friends who called or reached out after we returned to find out how our cruise was. I told them it was good, really nice, but admitted the weather was a disappointment for me, only because I knew what my kids were missing, even though they didn't know. My friend who cruised in the Eastern Caribbean on the Carnival boat that left just ahead of us said their weather was terrible also. It appears that half of the United States was hit with an arctic blast that week and it made its way to the Caribbean too, darn it. However, I did remember that I prayed a few times before we left that the weather would hold. And part of me thinks that what we experienced really was a blessing. And I don't want to complain about that! 

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