Birthdays in the Bahamas

One of the best perks of living in Florida is, of course, cruises leaving from your backyard (with state resident discounts)! Mom and Devon actually both have the same birthday, and would be celebrating milestones this year: she turned 65 and he turned 40. We decided to celebrate with my dad and brother on a family cruise, sailing out of Jacksonville on the Carnival Elation for 4 days. This was my first visit to the Bahamas.

Day 1: Thursday, June 9

We left Jacksonville at 4pm to sail to Freeport. I’m not even going to show you a picture of the Jaxport cruise terminal. It’s the most depressing place I’ve ever sailed from. Once on board, you’ve got a lovely “scenic” view of undeveloped marsh land, a gravel parking lot, and nuclear plant smoke stacks.

The Elation is one of Carnival’s oldest ships, so the cabins were legitimate relics of the late 90’s, right down to the ancient CRT television crammed into a corner of the room. Our cabin was “ocean view,” which apparently translates to “view the ocean… from a porthole window that doesn’t open.” The king bed was big enough to sleep two people without a problem, and the bathroom was a decent size, though if you’re over 6 feet, you’ll probably have to duck a little to use the shower. It was a comfortable enough place to sleep and shower, but not much else. The rooms were bereft of amenities… Not even a refrigerator. The on-board wifi started at $5 a day and that only included access to social media apps; everything else was blocked, including email (gotta pay extra).

After putting our bags in the room, guests were encouraged to go to the lido deck and enjoy the pool and buffet. Devon and I went right to the pool bar for our first drinks of the trip. We spent the remainder of the day walking around and exploring the ship. At dinner, they brought Mom and Devon each a birthday cupcake and sang to us. I went to bed shortly afterward, but that’s normal for me on a cruise. Alas, the rocking motion of the boat is sometimes a little too relaxing.

Day 2: Friday, June 10

I went for a morning run in the gym, then had an early lunch while waiting for the Elation to dock in Freeport. At noon, we debarked and met up for our excursion. Mom and dad booked the family for the “beach and open bar,” which was just taking a bus to Carnival’s private beach for the day. There did not seem to be much else to do in Freeport other than go to a beach, or pull up a barstool at Señor Frog’s.

At the beach, there were umbrellas and chairs provided for us to use as well as public bathrooms and picnic tables by the bar. If you felt so inclined, there were folks walking up and down the beach selling jet ski rides and parasail trips. There was also a giant water trampoline to play on. The “open bar” bit included local beer (Sands Brewery) and a few rum-based mixed drinks (piña coladas, mai tais, etc). There was a gentleman on the beach selling fresh coconut water (straight from the fruit), so Devon bought me one — and got one for himself with rum and condensed milk added. The vendor said it was called a “gully wash,” the unofficial drink of the Bahamas, and usually made with gin.

Y’all know I’m happy as long as I have an umbrella, a tube of SPF 100, and a book — so I was good for the whole afternoon. Toward the end of the afternoon, some storms started rolling in so we decided to pack it up and get back to the ship. The Elation left Freeport at 7pm.

Day 3: Saturday, June 11

At 8:00am on Saturday we were allowed to debark in Nassau. When you leave the port and enter the city, people will jump in front of you and aggressively try to sell you things, give you a ride somewhere, or braid your hair. (Joke’s on y’all, I just got back from Asia… Come at me bro. I’m immune to your hustle.)

For the afternoon, we’d booked the Rum Runner’s Passage Tour (via Islandz Tours) for the five of us. Our whole group was only 7 people, which to me is highly preferable over enormous tours. It was a walking tour so thankfully the weather was great. We began with rum punch at the Pirate’s Pub. I knew I was going to love our guide, Lindsay, when she opened the tour with, “So, I’m sure you’ve all heard of Christopher Columbus. Well, he was a giant asshole and we hate him here.” She led us through a Bahamas history lesson while we tasted 6 different rums in order from light to dark.

Protip: The Bahamas don’t have open container laws, so you can stroll around with your beverage! (So no need to do what I did and chug a rum punch before leaving the bar… Pace yourself; it’s a marathon, not a sprint.)

The second location on the tour was Hillside House, a 200+ year old building that’s currently in use as the gallery of local artist Antonius Roberts. We were given a snack of fresh rum cupcakes and conch fritters, then more boozy punch to sip while Lindsay regaled us with stories of the Bahamas’ role during prohibition and adventures of famous rum runners like William McCoy (a.k.a. “the real McCoy”) and the “Bahama Queen,” Gertrude Lythgoe (a genuine BAMF; seriously, Google this woman).

Afterward, we strolled to the Graycliff estate, home of a restaurant, hotel, cigar factory, wine cellar, and chocolatier by the same name. We took a short stroll around the hotel and grounds — it is gorgeous. I’m really inclined to stay there next time I want to visit Nassau. Lindsay was a fountain of information; I should have written more of it down. At the chocolate shop, we sampled a white chocolate truffle and a milk chocolate truffle infused with a shot of rum.

The final stop on the tour was the John Watling’s rum distillery, named for a somewhat famous pirate (although I’d never heard of him). We walked through one of the warehouse buildings to see some of the production line. Afterward, we tasted the three rums currently on the market (Pale, Amber, and Buena Vista). At the tour’s conclusion, the bartender gave us each a “rum dum,” John Watling’s signature cocktail — Pale rum, egg white, lemon juice, and sugar with an Amber rum floater.

I cannot recommend this tour enough! It was reasonably priced and a great way to see a few points of interest (and get your drink on) in an afternoon. If you book the tour, ask for Lindsay!

Afterward, my parents and brother went back to the ship. Devon and I met up with two of the local hashers, and got a brief drive-by tour of a few other points of interest (things to hopefully explore on our next visit!) before winding up at a pub to meet up with more hashers and have a few beers while they watched soccer. Nassau has quickly worked its way onto my list of favorite cities — it’s like if Key West and New Orleans had a baby. We returned to the ship quite buzzed, and left at 5pm.

Day 4: Sunday, June 12

This was a full day at sea on the way back to Jacksonville. Devon and I enjoyed “sea day brunch” in the main dining room, which was a welcome change from the breakfast buffet. It was a fairly lazy day. I went to the gym for a run, and then sat by the pool all afternoon. Following dinner, Devon and I watched the sunset from the bow of the ship. It was a wonderful long weekend and a great way to celebrate his 40th!

Atmosphere: I’ve previously sailed with Norwegian and Celebrity, and this was my first time sailing with Carnival. I’ve seen Carnival cruises described as a “floating Motel 6.” At this price point, I’m not expecting luxury. I can appreciate a budget vacation, since I mostly entertain myself, and just want to be left alone to relax. As I mentioned, the Elation is old (for a cruise ship), but was overall very clean and well-kept despite being horribly dated in appearance and desperately needing modernization. Unlike previous cruises, I felt that everyone at Carnival was always trying to sell you something, get you to upgrade, or force you to interact with other guests. It seems like this would be a great vacation if you want Disney style entertainment but can’t afford an actual Disney cruise. The cruise director was constantly making announcements about this or that activity. Unfortunately, most of what Carnival Elation had to offer did not appeal to me. I don’t have kids. I don’t gamble. I’m not interested in scams like “foot reflexology” or buying overpriced watches and costume jewelry. I’m not “single and ready to mingle.” I just wanted to sit quietly in the shade with a book, and occasionally dunk myself in the pool. Much to my dismay, the pool area had a DJ who played every horrible country song, one-hit wonder, and tired 90’s jock jam at max volume. I’m pretty sure the CIA uses his playlist to torture people in Guantanamo. Conga lines, the “Cupid Shuffle,” and “Wobble” are kind of amusing but the novelty wears off quickly the second or third time. Elation’s pool was also far too small for the number of guests on board. It didn’t bother me on the on the first day, but by the end of the trip, it was basically a human stew pot. But there was a water slide, so that was cool.

Staff: Everyone we encountered was incredibly friendly and did their jobs gracefully. They sneak into your cabin like towel-folding, bed-making ninjas! Staff members are always one of the most enjoyable aspects of cruising.

Drinks: The “Cheers!” open bar package was $50 a day with a limit of 15 alcoholic drinks per day. Non-alcoholic beverages such as bottled water, soda, smoothies, milkshakes, and specialty coffee/tea beverages were also included, with no daily limit. I didn’t feel like I really drank $50 worth of anything each day, but the beverage package makes it nearly impossible to overspend on booze, so that’s a plus.

Food: Carnival offers to accommodate folks with allergies or religion-based dietary restrictions, but I’m neither of those. Since I was on vacation I’d be happy just being able to choose vegetarian options without having to interrogate the servers and chefs about ingredients or ask for “special” meals. Overall I was pretty satisfied with the food quality and variety. My complaint is that the buffet and poolside restaurants could not accommodate enough guests, resulting in huge lines at peak times and on days at sea. The poolside Mongolian Grill was the most herbivore-friendly spot on the ship. I could load a plate with veggies/noodles, then give it to the chef to cook and add sauce (choices of black bean, Szechuan, or Thai barbecue). Buffet breakfasts were standard American continental fare; about what I expected — mostly meat. I ate a lot of fruit, plain grits, toast & jam, and home fries. (Not even a dairy alternative for coffee! I thought soy milk was pretty mainstream by now?) Buffet lunches/dinners had a few more choices, but were also mostly meat (including a deli sandwich station and pizza). There was always a salad bar, and usually something else plant-based available, but it often wasn’t exciting. One meal for me at the buffet ended up being a salad accompanied by a plain baked potato and steamed rice. We ate 3 of 4 dinners in the main dining room. They always had two menus; one remained static for the whole trip and the other was new each night. There was least one vegetarian appetizer and entree on both menus, so there were usually 4 or 5 choices I could pick from each night. A few appeared to be “accidentally vegan” but there was nothing on the menu intentionally free of animal products.

The best and worst of Carnival Elation’s vegetarian food — Best: Indian vegetarian entree. Absolutely delicious! Worst: Baked Alaska dessert. Arrived at the table half melted, and instead of meringue, they used whipped cream. (If you remember my Celebrity cruise, I’m now 0 for 2 on baked Alaskas. LOL)

Final Thoughts

Based on this experience, I would not be inclined to do a longer Carnival cruise — at least not on the Elation or any of their older vessels. However, this was an enjoyable low-cost vacation and a great long weekend getaway. I would love to visit Nassau again as well as explore some of the other islands.

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