Cruising for the First Time: The Bahamas

Carnival cruise ship as seen from the beach at Princess Cays

As you know, we like to share our travels with you, even those beyond Ohio’s borders. As we push through these sometimes bleak February days, my mind drifted back to a cruise we took two years ago, we were cruising for the first time. Cruise ships are a quick, and relatively inexpensive, ticket to sand, palm trees and clear, warm tropical waters.

Cruising for the First Time: When You’re Not a Cruise Person

I never thought of myself as a cruise person. The type of fun offered on cruise ships always seemed a sort of manufactured fun to me. I prefer more authentic travels, where I am able to discover a bit about the place I visit and find unique perspectives on the place and people.

Carnival Ecstasy at Princess Cays
We sailed on the Carnival Ecstasy, one of the smaller ships in the Carnival fleet.

I will say that for the most part, I was right. I’m not really a cruise person. I would much rather adventure on my own, discovering local places to eat and hiking nearby trails. I prefer the freedom to do what I want and go where I want on any given day.

I’m certainly not knocking cruising, I did have fun. There are a lot of people who wouldn’t travel any other way, sometimes booking several weeks every year on the ships. And I definitely enjoyed the all-inclusive nature of the industry. It was nice not having to worry about money during our entire trip.

Planning Your Cruise

As with Disney, there is an entire blog industry set up around cruises. These are people who cruise multiple times a year and have an abundance of information on the subject. They can tell you what to pack, when to go, where to get the best prices, how to find rewards programs and more. There are even blogs and videos geared toward those of us who are cruising for the first time.

A burger and fries from Guys Burger Joint on the left and on the right a young woman prepares to play ping pong on a cruise.
On the left is a burger from Guys Burger Joint. The burgers were great and were no extra charge. On the right Natalie is preparing to play ping pong at sea.

If you’re just starting to think about cruising and want to read reviews of different lines, you might check out blogs such as EatSleepCruise or All Things Cruise. They can offer reviews and experiences from multiple cruise lines and even hook you up to get a quote on your vacation.

After you’ve selected your cruise, there are a number of places to go for information. First, you’ll want to search for the Facebook group for your ship and sailing date. Honestly, I don’t really contribute, but it’s nice to see people pop up with questions about the ship or about cruising in general. I’ve had a number of my questions answered by just keeping an eye on the dialogue. And often, groups of people in the group will arrange an on-ship meet up.

A boat is anchored near a beach in the Bahamas. The water is clear and blue.
The water in the Bahamas is beautiful, clear and warm.

YouTube was probably one of my favorite resources. You can search not only for your specific cruise line, but for the actual ship you’ll be sailing.

Many of them include a complete tour of the ship, including activities for kids and reviews of the bars and restaurants on board. Others include tips of what to pack and the must do activities while on board. I like the ones that offer little secrets about the trip, for instance “deck 3 on the port side is a great place to get away from the crowds and read a book.”

Embarkation Day

One of the most important things about embarkation day is the muster drill. (Already I found myself learning a new vocabulary!) Before the ship is able to set sail, each passenger must report to and check in at their muster station. Here you will go through the safety instructions, either with an in-person crew member or virtually due to the new COVID restrictions.

Towel animal elephant left by a room steward on a Carnival cruise.
Towel animals are a nice touch on the cruise. Our room steward left us this elephant.

There is usually a sail away party on the main deck, complete with music and line dancing. We preferred to stay on our balcony, watching Cape Canaveral slowly slide into the distance.

Depending on your cruise line, you’ll want to pay attention to the daily goings on for embarkation day. You may find this on an app or on papers delivered to your room each day. For instance, our cruise offered a free bottle of wine with dinner in the steakhouse and there were drawings for prizes in the spa.

Port Days – Freeport

Our first port day was in Freeport, Bahamas. You can either book an excursion with your cruise company or venture off the boat on your own. The main advantage to booking with the cruise company is that if something happens and you are running late, the ship will wait for you. If you book a private excursion company or go it alone, they won’t.

A young woman stands next to a sign welcoming visitors to Freeport in the Bahamas.
Welcome to Freeport!

We decided to book a snorkel and beach day through the cruise. Included was transportation to the boat, a boat ride and snorkeling equipment. After the snorkel, they returned us to a beach which included lunch and drinks.

I looked forward to this stop the most and it was probably one of my least favorite parts of the trip. My expectations may have been too high.

On the left a young woman is in a life vest on a boat. On the right is a red tropical flower.
Natalie, on the left, waits her turn to get in the water during our snorkeling excursion. The islands are full of beautiful flowers.

After we left the ship, we were shuttled to the marina and onto a boat with no problem. Unfortunately, it was a rough day at sea which made for difficulty in snorkeling. Additionally, the area that we stopped to snorkel had no reef or fish to speak of. It was if we were snorkeling in a giant pool, swimming around and looking at each other.

Back at the marina, they loaded us on to a shuttle bus and took us to the second part of our excursion, our private beach experience. While it was private to cruisers, I am certain everyone else on our ship booked the “private beach” experience. It was crowded.

Hammocks and beach chairs are on a beach in the Bahamas.
This was the site of our beach excursion. We were one of the last ones out, so it’s not crowded in this photo.

I also envisioned lazing on the beach for the rest of the afternoon, making it back to the ship just in time to leave. We were told, however, that our private beach experience was to last just two hours, after which time we’d be shuttled back to the port. We made the most of it and enjoyed lunch and a few drinks.

Back at the port we spent some time meandering around the straw market. The girls bought t-shirts and then we headed back on board the ship.

Port Days – Private Islands – Princess Cays

One of the trends in the cruising industries is in the cruise companies buying small islands, or parts of the island to provide a uniquely private beach day. Some have a number of amenities and even water parks. Our Carnival ship stopped at Princess Cays, a relatively simple beach experience.

This ended up being my favorite part of the trip. Rather than choose an active excursion, we rented one of the cabanas on the island. This was a great decision!
The cabanas are fairly affordable at just above $200 for the day.

On the left a young woman poses in front of a beach bungalow. On the right a line of colorful beach bungalows.
On the left, Amanda poses in front of one of the cabanas. There were several available, but I believe they sell out quickly.

They are about the size of a small garden shed, but they are air conditioned. Inside, each cabana has a table and four chairs and they include two float rafts and snorkel gear for four people. Additionally, water or soda is included, along with chips and salsa and a vegetable platter.

We reasoned we would spend most of the $200 just in renting the floats and snorkels for us and the girls. It wasn’t much of a stretch to give ourselves a home for the day.

Scenes from Princess Cays in the Bahamas. On the left a scene of loungers on the beach. On the right two young women stand next to the Princess Cays sign.
On the left is our view from our cabana. On the right Natalie and Amanda welcome you to Princess Cays.

We spent most of the day on the beach, either in the water or on the chaise loungers in front of our cabana. At lunchtime we headed down to the buffet lined and secured platefuls of barbecue, hot dogs and sides. We were happy to skip the crowded picnic tables and return to our little cabana to eat.

Days at Sea

It may be because I didn’t fully embrace the cruise experience or it may be because we were on one of the smaller ships, but I found the days at sea to be boring. We did a few laps around deck, played one round of putt-putt and the girls played ping pong for a bit. The pool seemed too crowded, so we skipped it completely.

There were other things to do on the ship. One evening we went to a comedy show and another evening we went to a dance revue type show which was very nice. My husband enjoyed the casino and they also had Bingo available.

Eating at Sea

I will say the food on board was top notch. Was it the best food I’ve ever eaten? No. But there’s so much of it and so many different options, everyone can get what they want.

In the main dining room there are several options for appetizer, main course and dessert. If you want to try several appetizers, you can order a few. Not sure which main course you’d like? Order two! And the same goes with dessert, though I highly recommend their famous chocolate melting cake with vanilla ice cream.

Outside of that there were several other options. On our cruise there was the Lido deck dining room that is served buffet style. You can get ice cream cones there all day long.

There was also a Guy’s Burger Joint that served burgers and fries for lunch and the Blue Iguana that served Mexican food for breakfast and lunch. Additionally, there was a pizza spot that I believe was open 24 hours a day.

A panorama of a Carnival cruise ship in port at Freeport, Bahamas.
This is a panorama I took of the Carnival ship at port in Freeport. You can see the straw market to the right.

And if you don’t feel like leaving your cabin? You can get room service! There are two lists for room service, one which offers a limited menu completely free. The other offers additional foods for a fee, but the price was very low. I recommend getting room service on port days. This way you can eat early and get off the ship early.

Coming Home to a Different World

Coming home from our last cruise was unusual. See, the world stopped while we were away.

It was March of 2020. We stepped off the ship into a new world. The NCAA basketball tournaments had been cancelled. There was a toilet paper shortage. And school, which included the remainder of the girls’ senior year, was cancelled.

In all fairness, I doubt that’s what it’s like coming home from every cruise. But it was definitely a surreal experience.

Would I Cruise Again

Would I cruise again? Funny you should ask that.

The girls have their spring breaks, now from college, for mid-March and I happened to already have that week scheduled off work. So when an unbeatable price came across my husband’s email, I decided we’d give it another go. (It was made especially sweet because I paid for more than half of it with credit card points.)

A brown beach cabana with blue lounge chairs in front.
This was our actual cabana at Princess Cays. The doors don’t lock, but it still provides a nice home base for your beach day.

We will be sailing Carnival again, but this time on a much larger ship. We’ll also be sailing out of Charleston which will save us a few hours of drive time.

I have decided that this time I’m going to be a joiner. This ship has a water park and high ropes course, both of which I will try. I will also visit the casino, especially since the girls are old enough now, and maybe give Bingo a try.

We will be headed back to Princess Cays again, which I am very happy about. Our other port will be Bimini. This time we’ll be exploring the island on our own and I’ve already secured a golf cart rental.


We truly enjoy sharing our travels with you. If you’re looking for more travel ideas check out our travels page. But if you’re looking for something close to home, Ohio as plenty of great things to see and do. Check out our day trips page to find your next adventure.

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