July 9, 2023

First-timers on a Cruise Ship

Katie and Gene Hamilton

Bring Binocular News

New-to-cruising and what we learned getting our sea legs   

On the final day of our first cruise ship experience I was half awake as the morning sun peeked over the horizon. We had been cruising on Enchantment of the Seas returning to our home port of Baltimore in early December. Our time aboard a cruise ship was notably different from our many years cruising on sail and power boats we’ve owned.

General Intentions

The 8-night Royal Caribbean cruise we chose was an experiment for several reasons, and we had some unanswered questions. Would we like sailing on such a large floating city with a few thousand people? What would we do on the days we’d be at sea? Would my vestibular disorder that messes with my balance make it difficult to get around on a rolling ocean? And I was just curious why so many people went on so many cruises.


We chose a cruise to revisit Charleston, SC, Port Canaveral, FL and Nassau, Bahamas – all places we’ve cruised on earlier adventures on our own sailboats and trawlers. Since we live near Baltimore, we didn’t have the hassle, cost and time to fly to a departure port so we drove to the Charm City port terminal lot, parked our car and went aboard. We were happy to join our friends Nancy and Larry, who have several cruises under their belt. We followed their lead and advice: don’t bring a lot of clothes, do bring an appetite and sense of adventure.  

Decisions – room, drinks and adventure

We chose a low price inside cabin on Deck 2 to test the concept of being on a cruise ship and although it was small, we found nooks and crannies to stow our stuff. The four sailboats and three powerboats we owned – 24-feet to 42-feet – gave us plenty of practice living in small spaces.

Before departing we had done the calculus about buying the prepaid unlimited daily liquor package that came out to about $60 a person a day. As much as we enjoy a drink or two before dinner, we couldn’t imagine consuming that much alcohol (or admitting to it.) 

We had signed up for shore package tours in Charleston and Port Canaveral but in Nassau we wanted to take a taxi to see our old haunts from previous visits.

Being aboard

The boarding process was hectic with lots of people all moving in the same direction. Going aboard was a good workout walking up a maze of gangplanks until we reached the ship and found our cabin.

We laughed remembering a story our friend Janet, a veteran cruiser, told us about her first cruise ship experience. “I saw an older couple, one on a walker, the other using a cane struggling with carryon bags so I asked if I could help” she said. Almost instantly the three of us were ushered to the front of the line. “They were grateful for my help as I left them at their cabin.” Two nights later she saw them waltzing across the dance floor!” Clearly savvy cruisers know how to game the system and be first in line.

Our firsthand experience using binoculars when traveling: 8×25 compact binoculars are a good choice for traveling because they’re lightweight and easy to tuck into a backpack or purse. The first number”8” is its magnification which makes an image 8 times closer than what you see with your eyes; it’s good for a wider field of view. The “25” is the size of the objective lens measured in millimeters that defines how much light the binocs can gather. A larger objective lens has more light gathering power so the image resolution will be higher and brighter.                      

Orderly and organized systems aboard

Cruise ships are nothing if not organized. They have perfected procedures for moving large numbers of people in all directions. Long before departure we  printed out a packet of information with procedures to follow and what to expect.   

Every day the cabin attendant gave us a newsletter, the Cruise Compass, with a weather forecast, activities like yoga, dance classes, games and live entertainment choices. It spelled out gangplank opening hours and times to depart and return when we were in port, all useful stuff to know.

To find their room some passengers decorated their door

On the ship’s tv channel we watched the news, movies, weather and a map showing the ship’s location. 

But we had a more accurate location because Larry brought his handheld marine GPS to pinpoint where we were. It was like having live entertainment. The GPS tracked the progress of the ship when we were close to shore but lost the signal as we moved out to sea.


Larry’s GPS always told us exactly where we were

Underway and at sea

We sailed out of Baltimore harbor at the top of Chesapeake Bay and headed south late in the day. We recognized Annapolis on the starboard side with the Bay Bridge well-lit and commuter traffic crossing in both directions. We reminisced about the many times we sailed under that bridge in other boats and drove across it as commuters.

We got into the daily routine of meeting our friends Nancy and Larry, (also early birds) in the morning for coffee and a light breakfast at the Park Café on the aft deck. We sat enjoying the weather while mulling over plans for the day.

We enjoyed our first day at sea getting to know the ship, discovering new places to explore and just sitting on deck enjoying the view of absolutely nothing but gently rolling seas.  Passengers and crew were extremely friendly and outgoing. We were quick to learn we were cruising newbies when we chatted with a couple in the elevator and mentioned this was our first cruise.  The woman said, ”Oh this is our 38th cruise,” and her husband responded “And there won’t be a 39th!” Many others cruise once a month or every other month. There is a mix of age groups, some use mobility scooters, or power chairs others are young families some with kids and grandparents. Most of who we chatted with knew the types, class and sizes of ships they were on. We were learning.

Charleston, South Carolina

Our first port of call was Charleston SC, a charmer of a city between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. There we boarded a tour bus to see the Old World charm in a city we fondly remember. We were happy the city’s antebellum and colonial buildings were intact on narrow tree-lined neighborhood streets. The Historic King Street had grown with more unique shops and dining choices. And the City Market known for its authentic sweetgrass baskets and works of local artisans remains a popular visitors attraction.

Charming Charleston with its historic homes and Palmetto trees

Years before we saw the H. L. Hunley, the first successful combat submarine in world history in a Civil War battle. After sinking the USS Housatonic completing her mission, she disappeared. And a century later the sub was found and retrieved by the U.S. Navy in 1995. While the Hunley was being transported on a barge we happened to be on our boat, High Life, a Grand Banks 36-foot trawler. We were underway crossing Charleston Harbor and saw the operation.  We knew its remarkable history and were thrilled to recognize a replica of the amazing vessel now on the grounds of the Charleston Museum on Meeting Street. The actual submarine resides in a conservation tank at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston.

Port Canaveral, Florida

Coming into Port Canaveral we wanted to be up to see the harbor because we remember stopping here in our 41-foot sailboat. Back then in the 1970s we anchored in a small area on the south side of the entrance across from some commercial cargo vessels on the north side. That was it.

Flash forward and our ship was one of ten other cruise ships docked at a modern terminal and the harbor was surrounded by large buildings as far as we could see.

Authors Katie and Gene at NASA Rocket Garden

We visited Kennedy Space Center with Nancy and Larry for a full day of exploring the enormous NASA space complex on Merritt Island. The center is six miles wide and 35 miles long on the east coast of Florida. With over one million visitors a year we were happy to be there on a quiet day with no crowds or long lines. KSC spans 6,000 acres of land for facilities and roads and is part of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, one of the largest and most diverse wildlife preserves in Florida.

At the entrance the Rocket Garden features an impressive display of rockets in NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. This towering garden of giants honored the engineering feats of technology, and paid tribute to the scientists and engineers who turned dreams of spaceflight into reality. From there we followed a walkway leading to the Gateway to enter the spaceport of the future. We strapped in and went on an immersive ride into space. Kinda scary but an amazing feeling of propulsion as we sped through space.

We saw the Path to the Moon exhibit celebrating the accomplishments of the Apollo missions and the technology developed to keep astronauts safe while going to the moon. The actual Apollo spacecraft was incredibly small when you got a good look at it.

Main engine thrusters of Saturn rocket

We took the bus tour to get us throughout the complex. The exhibit of the Hubble Space Telescope was a popular attraction and so was Planet Play designed for little kids to climb through a wormhole and walk on Saturn’s rings. And of course, we sampled Space Dots, a tasty ice cream treat. 

As we drove back to the ship, we remembered being aboard our boat in Vero Beach in the 1990s when we saw a space shuttle night launch from the marina there. Many of us were on the dock standing in awe as we watched it soar into space. We cheered and toasted the event seeing a train of private airplanes all in a row watching the spectacle from the air.

From a higher deck we saw the working rig for dockage

A cruise ship docking and leaving its berth is like a well-orchestrated dance. We watched departure procedures as the crew followed directions to cast off cables from land while those aboard operated a giant wheel rolling the cable aboard.

Nassau, Bahamas

 At Nassau Nancy and Larry went on a catamaran cruise to snorkel in the clear water while we hired a taxi to take us to the old harbor where we had moored. Nassau harbor had expanded since our first visit 48 years ago on Gusto, our 41-foot sloop. That trip was an adventure, we arrived in Nassau late at night after a three-day sail from Florida and anchored in the harbor (mistakenly) in front of the Seaplane ramp on Paradise Island. Early the next day we were buzzed by the first of several seaplanes using the ramp. We moved and anchored closer to town until Bahamian Customs cleared us for entry. Then we took a slip at the city marina further up the harbor and enjoyed the balmy weather, being with other cruisers and devouring fried conch fritters.

Lots of cruise ships and tugboats in Nassau Harbor

We were heartbroken when our cat Puss disappeared, and we feared the worst. But we put up a $10 reward poster and soon she was returned in the arms of a little boy who said she was up in a tree near the marina office. Puss had a brother named Boots and they grew to become a big part of our sailing and land lives.

From the cruise ship we hired a Ramsey, a taxi driver and explored the Nassau we remembered, but much busier with commercial vessels and more private yachts than we recalled. We toured the stately Parliament government grounds buildings busy with workers and drove down Bay Street, the main drag.

Nassau government building

 We stopped at the secluded Queen‘s Staircase, near the Princess Margaret Hospital and  university campus at the Fort Fincastle Historic Complex near Bennet’s Hill. The 66–step walkway was carved out of solid limestone rock by 600 slaves in the 1790s to provide an escape route from the fort above. Water flows along the staircase cascading to a pool below as the walkway goes between high walls and lush tropical plants with trees providing a cool reprieve despite the heat.

The Queen’s Staircase

Tracing our Tracks back to Baltimore

Every day aboard we discovered something new – a casino, a climbing wall, and our favorite: a dispenser of self-serve soft ice cream cones (chocolate and vanilla.) For all meals the Windjammer buffet had an amazing spread of delicious food choices. It was a favorite of ours for lunch with a window view to enjoy. For dinner we had a standing reservation for a white tablecloth dinner served by an attentive and friendly staff. So many choices served so well. After dinner the Jersey Tenors were a treat to see and hear like all the entertainment venues we enjoyed.  

Larry, Katie and Nancy in Bahamas with Enchantment of the Sea in the background

The final two days cruising the eastern seaboard north to Baltimore were grey days but easy going. Some wind and a few rollers kept us inside but nothing unsettling. We noticed how heavy and sturdy deck chairs and tables were because they didn’t move despite the sea motion.  

Coverage on the GPS and our cell phones went live as we turned up the mouth of the Bay at Norfolk. We were in familiar cruising waters and glad to be home, but also happy to find a new way to explore and enjoy the wonders around us.

Our takeaway on cruise ships was very positive. We didn’t take advantage of the cruise specialist on board who helped passengers plan their next cruise, but we definitely came away with thoughts and plans to up the number of our cruise ship adventures.

Useful Tips

Before you choose a cabin

  • Use the cruise line’s website to study the schematics of the ship to know the deck level, location of cabins, elevators, stairs, restaurants and the many other venues.
  • Consider day trip options to know if you want to go and what to expect

To dos on board 

  • Get an ID holder on a lanyard for your SeaPass, a ship ID charge card for anything you buy onboard. You need it for going ashore and to get back on board. It can hold your passport.
  • To recognize your cabin number, some folks stuck a bow or decoration on their door so it was easy to find.
  • You do a lot of walking on a cruise ship to get around so wear comfortable shoes.
  • Don’t forget your binoculars, camera and sunscreen.
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Gene and Katie Hamilton travel the U.S. extensively in search of a favorite place. They are members of the Outdoor Writers Association of America.

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