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7 days from Miami to Key West, Mexico, and Grand Cayman

For our first venture into the wonderful world of Celebrity, we took a 7 day cruise through the Caribbean on the Equinox. We had high hopes for this brand, expecting lots of higher-end food and who knows what else. basically, we just wanted to experiment with another line and see how it stacked up. 

Does it matter what it tastes like?

We didn’t really know what to expect, but as habitual cruisers on Norwegian (and having worked on Holland America and Carnival), we found Celebrity to fall somewhere in la la land…. perfectly OK, but nothing really notable to write home about. Yes, we had a great time. Yes, having access to kids club for our now-three-year-old is pretty earth shattering. But what was missing? 

We lucked out and were able to book a Fourth of July Cruise from Miami, using a free voucher obtained through M Life comps, which Matt will write about at some point. We were able to book our preferred itinerary during a very short window of what was feasible during a very busy summer. We have been Key West, Costa Maya, Cozumel, and Grand Cayman more times than I can count, but the allure of seeing stingrays and eating quesadillas with my son in tow held unparalleled appeal. Off we went.

We arrived in Miami at 7:30pm, and checked into Courtyard Miami Coconut Grove for one night before we embarked. Old as we are, the Fresh Market Across the street provided a quick dinner and a bottle of decent wine, which we brought back and enjoyed in our suite. The following morning, we explored Coconut Grove proper, partaking in local beers and ambiance, and acclimating to the HUMID Florida weather. Embarkation was easy, and we were on board really quickly. Once we got on, however, the rooms were not ready. Though we didn’t have too much with us, the bags we did carry quickly became very heavy while wandering around aimlessly, wrangling a 3 year old. By the time boat drill was announced at 3:30, we seriously questioned what was going on. Apparently, rooms were ready long ago, but we could not hear the announcement. Here lies the fine balance between annoying messages about Bingo and important information which could really benefit our mental health.

Lawn Club

The ship was fine. Some perks included the Gastropub, Hot Glass shows, and Team Earth, a collaboration with WWF which they admirable tried to emphasize through fundraising and events throughout the cruise. The room was also fine, however this was only the second balcony cabin we have been in which had no curtain separating the bed from the “living room”. Not a big deal for a single couple, but with a toddler who usually sleeps in pitch black conditions, this poses a problem. In this scenario, one or both of the adults need to either sleep when the kid does, or sit outside on the balcony, where he knows you are and therefore shouts at you from the other side of the door. Naps quickly became a thing of the past. 

Kids Club: If you are parent who takes care of your child full time, letting them go is a weird feeling. We never use babysitters, and going out to dinner is usually a full-family affair. So leaving our child for an hour or two at a time (for free) felt wrong in many ways. Of course he was fine, and probably preferred being with other kids and counselors to being with us. But it admittedly took us 3 days of early pick-ups for us to acclimate to the idea of child care. Once we did, we realized what a glorious thing alone time can be. The timing of our evenings then revolved around the Kids Club. Regular hours began at 7pm, with supplemental hours (sometimes with a fee) allowing us to watch the 7pm show if we were so inclined. We usually fed our son around 6pm, allowed some time for digestion (if you know what I mean), brought him up to play at 7, then raced to the show and ate thereafter. Because the second show at 9pm was after our son’s bedtime, we tried to do our adulting and retrieve him before that time each night (especially with no naps).

The staff themselves were very good. I felt like they actually enjoyed being around children, and were doing their best to develop cool activities for their crew. Pirate parades, silent discos, cupcake decorating, and a talent show were all part of the itinerary. Since I used to work in this department, I understand how much fun it can be, and yet how much work is required to keep everyone happy. The one kink in the agenda was on camping night, when they told us at 5pm that they wouldn’t re-open until 8pm (an hour later than expected) because they needed to set up for the evening. You can’t do that. If you state that your evening hours start at 7pm, parents arrange their limited time alone to accommodate this slot. Don’t change expectations.

Food: We were on the no scheduled, no pre-arranged-group dining package.  (I still have no idea why someone would willingly place themselves at a table with a bunch of strangers. I like my freedom to be introverted, thank you.) The buffet is a necessity with young children, and I find NCL’s to be of higher quality. Especially on the older ships like the Sun, we had some amazing curries that made you feel like you were in India in the very best way. Yum. 

Charcuterie at Gastrobar… or was it the buffet?

Main dining, again, was OK. The sommelier was quite good, and recommended a wine which was nice, though expensive. We supplemented our adult meals with a visit to Gastrobar on 1/2 price craft beer night, and a casino-paid visit to the Italian Steakhouse Tuscan Grille. Gastrobar’s bone marrow was actually quite good, though the charcuterie could have been (probably was) collected from the buffet. The Italian meal, though, felt special. The waiter was pleasant and quietly attentive, and the food was very flavorful- they even cut the basil into our oil tableside. Also, we had become relatively guilt-free from the idea of Kids Club by then, and managed to order a truckload of homemade pasta, steaks, and much better charcuterie during this dinner. The sommalier comped us a Brunelo which was much nicer than we were expecting… he shared that he was going home the following week and didn’t care who he pissed off. 

Note: the specialty dining reservations went very quickly. We managed to squeeze in a 6pm Tuscan Grille reservation on Cozumel day, which was not ideal, but the only spot available when we asked on day 2. We did get put on a wait list for the French restaurant and received a call 20 minutes before the reservation saying it was available. We declined, having recently consumed massive amounts of the buffet.

Tuscan grille

Entertainment: I found the cruise staff to be virtually non-existent on this ship. The first sea day included “silent disco” style guided meditation, using headphones to facilitate meditation up on the lawn club (which was admittedly super cool). Except no one showed to facilitate it. Forty guests tried to maintain their zen while getting increasingly frustrated that an hour passed before one New Yorker piped up and tracked down someone to give out free tee shirts. A hilariously ironic first-world state of affairs.

Mr Topper’s Magic Hat… or something

The shows were supposed to be contemporary, but always just a little too weird to make any sense whatsoever. The plot of the show above featured a bunch of creatures stuck inside a hat, yet were always out of the hat. Ashlie Amber (the woman suspended above the hat in the photo) was BY FAR the best vocalist, and her own show will be going up as a headliner on future cruises. Besides the cast shows, there were two comedy/impressionists who did neither of those things very well. The next day, I enjoyed listening to the old biddies complaining about how they were too racy- those ladies more laughs than the shows.

Balloon Drop

For the Fourth of July, the cruise staff miraculously appeared (2 of them) for a party in the atrium. The highlight of this party was when, following a balloon drop which pretty much made my son’s heart explode, the entire crowd ganged together to give him a balloon when he couldn’t manage to catch his own. Humanity prevailed, and I cried a little. 

A little culture amidst the chaos

Ports: Key West, Day 2: I love Key West, but worrying about an overtired, overheating toddler deflated our sails a bit. The temperature was hovering around 100, and we managed to play at the Southernmost point beach, load up at the make-your-own Bloody Mary bar, and eat some fried food at DJ’s Clam Shack before heading back to the ship. 

Mahahual and Ceviche!

Costa Maya, Day 4: Mahayuhal is an old fishing port which has been flipped into a tourist hotspot. Despite what the touts tell you, you can cab it there for $2 pp and only pay for drinks/food to secure a lounge chair or cabana for the day. We happily ate ceviche and drank Modelos until the skies opened up with torrential rain, pouring bleach-scented runoff from the rafters. A family visiting from Mexico City had twin four-year-old girls, who played with our son in until the sky cleared. Our waiter braved the gale-force winds to retrieve my hat that had blown away. This was my favorite day. 

Cenotes rainbow

Cozumel, Day 5: The only excursion we booked through the ship was to Xcaret, a ferry ride and short bus trip along the coast of Playa del Carmen. We had been once before during our engagement trip, but wanted to bring our son so he could experience it too. The bonus benefit of booking through the cruise was surprisingly the price. Including the ferry and free admission for kids under 5, the total came in cheaper than booking online and less stressful than risking the close timing. However, taking into account travel time to and from the ship, we ended up with about 4 hours at the park. During this time, we floated through cenotes, saw sharks and sea turtles, wandered through a botanical jungle, and ate some surprisingly decent Mexican food. A long but satisfying day. If you go, plan to be there at night, since the heritage shows seem to all start around 5:30pm.

Baby Coatis!

Grand Cayman, Day 6: This one, we booked independently, using Soto Cruises for a quick trip to Stingray City. Again, kids were free, so the whole thing came to about $35pp and included three stops and pickup from the pier. The first stop was in deep water, and provided a snorkeling opportunity to see rays and other tropical fish. They provided life jackets, which were helpful for keeping us afloat as our son jumped from the boat into our arms about 1000 times.

Stingray City

We then went the stingray sandbar, where the guides were able to pick up and let you pet the animals. The last (a bonus since we had some extra time) was to starfish beach, where we were able to splash around in the shallows with a few dozen other boats that had moored there.

What was I doing again?

My kid LOVES the water, and spent the day happily touching rays, petting sea stars, and showing off his bubble-blowing skills. He fell dead asleep on the ride back, so we carried him to the Margaritaville across the street from the pier to have one last drink before getting back on board.

Look at this poor guy, wasting away in Margaritaville…

So we had a great time. Would we go back on Celebrity again? Of course! If it was free…

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