Back in December, Ben had the opportunity to take a tour of several Compassion International projects in Ecuador as part of a marketing campaign on Heartlight. Compassion wanted to give the web-marketers who support and promote Compassion on various Christian web sites a first-hand experience of the work they're doing all over the world, but especially in this case - Ecuador.
Along with a small group of Christian web-savvy businessmen & women, Ben experienced a life-changing, perspecitve-altering week amongst the kids, employees and volunteers associated with the Compassion International projects in Ecuador. While it would take days to re-tell every story of his adventure (literally...it took him days to show me all the photos and tell me all the stories when he came home), he has put together a few articles on Heartlight to tell the stories of some special people he met and describe the fabulous work that Compassion International is commited to in Ecuador.
Take a peek at his journey here:
- A Fork in My Path
- It's a Small World After All
- We Exist
- Compassionate People
- From Surviving to Thriving
- and his Ecuador trip photo gallery on Facebook.
If these stories touch you like they have affected us, please prayerfully consider sponsoring a child through Compassion International or contributing in some way to their mission. It really does make a difference.
Carnival Fantasy: 4 night cruise - Mobile, AL to Cozumel
I read several cruise reviews before our vacation this year, and enjoyed and appreciated how well they prepped me for what to expect on our cruise. So, I thought I'd return the favor for all you looking for info about going on a cruise, and share a little bit about our trip.
A little bit of background, because every cruiser is different and has different expectations and experiences:
This was the first vacation my husband and I have taken together, by ourselves, in 4 years. We have a 3 1/2 year old and a 1 year old, and are deep in the trenches of vaccuming cheerios, wiping faces, listening to crying children, and ultimately taking care of their every need, every day, every minute. So an all-inclusive cruise sounded like exactly the mindless, decision-less, pre-planned, service-filled vacation we were looking for
Also important -- This is the second cruise we have been on together. The last one was 5 years ago (pre-children) on Royal Caribbean's Majesty of the Seas. So, we knew what the general experience of a cruise was like going into the trip and though the two cruise lines are different, the experience is generally very similar.
Those things said, here's what we thought of our trip:
We sailed on the Carnival Fantasy from Mobile, Alabama (which will be replaced by the Elation in May 2010). Passenger capacity is a little over 2,000 and it has 10 decks. The ship was recently renovated and was incredibly clean and well-maintained.
Our favorite spot was the wide Via Marina hallway on the Promenade deck, which was full of lots of little nooks and tables next to large windows overlooking the ocean on one side while the other side opened into the casino, night clubs and the Bistro. This is also where the photographers set up thier backdrops each night for portraits. It was kind of the hub of activity after dinner each night, and where we spent a lot of our indoor time when we weren't eating or in our room sleeping.
We stayed in an Interior Stateroom -- the cheapest available with no windows and no frills -- but were very pleased with the room. The bed was comfortable, the pillows & bedding were perfect, and even the bathroom was reasonably spacious (for a boat, you know).
There were plenty of drawers, a big closet, and our suitcases fit right under the bed, so it was easy to put everything away and not trip over it all weekend. The only thing we were missing was a hairdryer, but when I asked our stateroom attendant if that was possible to get (I was already imagining a trip to the front of the boat to "air dry" each night), he delivered one to the room within about 30 minutes.
Perhaps I should also have asked him for a digital clock, because the only clock we had in the room was the television channel showing our trip progress. Since the room is pitch black with no windows, it's impossible to judge what time it might be when you wake up in the middle of the night - 2am feels and looks exactly the same as 10am. We kept a cell phone near us to check the time, but next time I'd bring a digital clock -- there's just something I like about not having to move to know what time it is when I'm in bed!
The top decks were wonderful, with lots of deck chairs, several seating areas (both near and away from the stage & pool, depending on your preference). The Lido deck has a grill and bar available and open most of the day.
On the back of the ship there were a couple of waterslides, which we tried out, and that the kids on the boat absolutely loved. It's a nice cool-off alternative to the rather small swimming pool and stuffed-with-pre-teens hot tubs.
The very top deck included an "Olympic" jogging track, which was rather funny, since it takes 11 laps to make a mile. That would be a pretty boring olympics. But there was also a miniature golf course (very plain) and some kind of putting practice cage.
Other areas inside the boat that we visited frequently included the Celebration dining room (very nice), the Windows on the Sea cafeteria (also nice), the fitness center (great machines to use), the Universe Lounge (auditorium for the shows - which had very comfortable seats and mini-tables), and the Grand Spectrum (main center area of the ship).
Overall, it was a very nice ship and we had no complaints about the appearance or condition.
We weren't expecting anything fantastic with the cruise itinerary. Since we were set on crusing out of Mobile, our options were limited. The destination ports weren't that important to us though, since we just wanted a vacation away from home. In fact, when people asked us where the cruise was going, we often forgot! That's how unimportant it was to us WHERE we were cruising to!
Here's a general outline of the itinerary:
THURSDAY - board
FRIDAY - Fun Day at Sea (formal night)
SATURDAY - docked in Cozumel, Mexico
SUNDAY - Fun Day at Sea
MONDAY - disembarkment
We had late dining at 8:15 pm (6:00 dining or on-demand dining were our other options when we booked the cruise). So, dinner was over around 10:00. It seemed as though there were several activities planned during our dinner time, that we missed, but early diners could take advantage of since their dinner was over by then. There wasn't much going on during the early dining hours -- that's when we usually took a nap and got ready for dinner.
Next time, I think we'd pick the on-demand dining, as that would also allow us to sit with different people each night. Not that we didn't like our table-mates. We did...just would have enjoyed some variety since we didn't travel with friends this time.
As far as other offered activities (which are scheduled all day long from 7am to 1am), we didn't participate in many of them, so I can't review them very accurately. We were amused by the contests on the Lido deck, the dance lessons in the discotech, and the karaoke in one of the lounges. There's always something to watch or listen to. Just check your daily "Fun Times" newsletter for the schedule and descriptions, left with chocolates on the bed! :)
While in Cozumel, we did not participate in any excursions, and opted to take a taxi downtown to walk around and shop instead.
It seemed as though the people we talked to on the boat weren't that thrilled with the beaches they saw, although I read great things about some of the resorts before our trip. If I go back again, I'd like to try snorkeling. I just didn't get close enough to that clear water as I would have liked to!
Ooh, the food... While I wouldn't say it was the best food I'd ever had, it was definitely good, had a great variety of types of food, and there was LOTS of it! You could eat and eat and eat and eat as much as you wanted, anytime you wanted, all day long. That said, it is also easy to eat really healthy foods and eat well the whole time too. In fact, my husband lost two pounds and I didn't gain any. We attribute that to all the stair-climbing and walking we did, because we certainly didn't watch what we ate!
The Windows on the Sea and Lido Grill both had lots of fresh vegetables, fruit, and a variety of main course and side dish options. When we ate at these places (mostly for breakfast, lunch & snacks) we ate burgers, fries, taco bar, omlettes, salad bar, fish, chicken, crab cakes, danishes, calamari, sausage, eggs, cheesecake, cookies, ice cream and pizza. Pretty basic stuff, and it was all buffet-style.
When we ate dinner (and one lunch & one breakfast) in the dining room, you were presented with a menu that included 3-4 special "Chef Recommends" menu items and appetizers (which both changed each day) and the "Carnival Classics" which were available everyday. I ordered a different appetizer & entree each night - with the exception of dessert. Nothing could top the Carnival Classic Warm Chocolate Melting Cake with vanilla ice cream. My mouth waters just thinking about it.
You could also order from a complimentary room service menu at anytime. We tried to order breakfast with a card menu on our door the first night, but it ended up that weren't in our room when it was supposed to be delivered the next morning...so we aren't sure if it ever came.
I was also a big fan of the sushi bar in the Via Marina as an appetizer to dinner!
Our only complaint about the food -- it would have been really nice to have popcorn, crackers or chips or something snack-y available all day long instead of just the pizza & ice cream. A salty snack would have been perfect.
As I mentioned, we didn't participate in many of the scheduled activities, but we did enjoy several of the entertainment options. We went to both shows in the Universe Lounge, one was a Beatles Tribute show, which I enjoyed and thought was fairly well-done. The other was a tribute to famous clubs (ie. Copa Cabana, Tropicana, etc.) We only caught half of the show and weren't as excited about it. Still, it's rather amazing that the dancers and singers can do all that on a rocking ship!
There were a couple of live singers and musicians that played in smaller public areas on the boat, and we enjoyed listening to them in the late afternoon and evenings. The guy who sang in the Grand Spectrum was especially good! We listened to him several times.
The cruise director "Risa" and her crew did a good job, but it was definitely like summer camp for adults, so kind of cheesy, lots of !!!! exclamation points in everything they said, and kind of silly activities. But if you get into their games and have the right group of people with you (my girlfriends and I would have had a blast doing all the "stuff"), it's probably a lot of fun -- bingo, contests, games, dancing, etc.
I found the photo setups each evening to be pretty entertaining -- since I love photography. It was very "glamour-shots-esque", with all the backdrop scenes and cheesy posing, but really, you could come away with a great portrait (in addition to some really silly ones!). Our dinner mates bought 11 portraits while on the boat...but they said they hadn't had a photo taken of the two of them in years before that. So good for them! We only bought one--but we had some doozies to look at all week! :)
I would have LOVED the photo service if they linked all your pictures to your Sign & Sail account, let you use a kiosk to view them (so you didn't have to shuffle through hundreds of prints) and then could order prints in any sizes or quantities. But, they don't have that technology available (bet Disney does!). Plus, then they could sell more 8x10s at $21.99 instead of 4x6's. :)
This is why we went on a cruise. Service. We needed to be served, and we weren't disappointed.
The stateroom attendants are on top of everything! Everytime we left the room, when we came back, the bed was re-made, towels replaced and folded, trash emptied, glasses replaced, ice refilled, and even the toilet paper was folded. It was wonderful. It's like having your very own magic cleaning elf. Loved it.
The information desk people were helpful and efficient. We went to them twice, first to put cash on my Sign & Sail card (for onboard drinks, photos, and other extra purchases) and second to pick up a dose of Bonine on Friday when I was sea sick (normally the motion wouldn't bother me much, but this day of the trip was especially rocky).
Our dining staff, which was the same to guys the whole trip, was probably our only complaint, and really they weren't bad, just not as entertaining as the staff was on our Royal Caribbean cruise a few years ago. It's just the luck of the draw I think, because we saw several waiters hamming it up at the other tables. It didn't matter though...we still had chairs pulled out for us, napkins placed on our laps, silverware and glasses and plates magically appeared and disappeared at the appropriate times, and they always brought us anything we asked for. We were just happy to be able to stay seated for an entire meal and not have to wolf our food down in 5 minutes while cutting food and feeding it to a screaming child!
It's like the staff is trained to only say "yes" and they completely remove "no" from their vocabulary. Comprised of individuals from all over the world, they're work ethic and dedication to pleasant, friendly service could serve as a great model for many non-helpful and cranky American workers we run into everyday.
People watching. That's what we did a LOT of on our cruise. Ages varied from young couples to families with kids of all ages, to middle-aged couples and even lots of seniors. Everyone we talked with was from Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida. Leaving out of Mobile definitely limits the cruisers to this region...because otherwise, you'd likely go ahead and fly to Miami or some place that offers more cruising options. So, you have to kind of expect a little bit of southern flair aboard the ship.
This cruise is definitely Alabama-happy. How else would it be completely normal for "Sweet Home Alabama" to get everyone on the dance floor in an instant (complete with the "Roll Tide Roll" add-on) in the middle of the ocean? Not to mention the randomness of being able to say "War Eagle" on the streets of Cozumel and get an instant "War Eagle" back.
I'd go again in a heartbeat. Especially if I had a babysitter. :)
Put me on a mission, and I'll get it done. Tonight I finished up my Disney scrapbook from our September trip. Mind you, I didn't do anything fancy. It's a simple 2-up photo album and I just made a few embellishment / accent cards to include in addition to the photos.
Here are some peeks at the inside...handwritten journaling, a few character stickers, and minimal embellishments. (I saved the "art" for the cover and title pages for each park, which I shared here a while back.)
But..in addition to completing the journaling and embellishment cards, I did add a couple of little tricks that I thought were worth sharing.
First, I added tabs to each section to divide the album by theme park.
Then, just after the title page, I left two pages for some journaling and a schedule of what we did each day. When I finally got ready to make that page, I decided to make little flaps (2" x 12", folded in half) to hold the journaling for each section. I love how it turned out and that it's kind of an interactive Table of Contents:
Ahh, feels good to finish an album. Here's the last page, and since the album comes with a CD holder, I included a DVD-ROM of all of the photos and videos that we took on the trip:
And now, I can cross this album off my list, and move on to my next two scrapbooking projects: my Grandmother's Memoirs and a Baby Boy Album! :)
After a great week at Disney World, and lots of fun taking photos, these are my favorite "artsy" pics from the week:
I decided to carry all of three of my lenses with me since I don't have one multi-purpose lens, and ended up using them all, so I'm glad I did. I can definitely see a benefit to a large range lens though...I was wishing for an 18-200mm zoom several times just for convenience of not having to change lenses. Instead of that huge investment, I decided to buy a camera bag from Sam's that was the perfect tote bag all week for all my equipment (as well as plenty of diapers, wipes and snacks!).
My favorite night of our beach trip every year is taking family photos. It's a mad dash of directing the family, setting up the shot, pressing the button and sprinting to get into the photo and look "casual" when I get there. My father-in-law caught me in action during our photo shoot:
I look SO much more "pro" than I'll ever be! :)
After Ayla went to bed last night, Ben and I went down to the beach to walk. We watched the moon rise, and last night apparently was a special moon-night...there was a strawberry moon. It looked just like a sunset...going the opposite direction.
Unfortunately we didn't have our camera with us as we were walking, but
when we finished, we ran up and picked it up along with the tripod and played around with the camera. Most of the pics were a blurry mess, but we did get a few salvageable shots...and it was a fun thing to do one evening of our vacation:
While driving around the Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri I noticed there are such cool signs everywhere. While we were waiting to take a boat ride yesterday, I went for a quick walk to capture some of the signage. I have no idea what I'll do with the pictures now, but they were just too cool to pass up! Here's a collage of a few that I collected:
And, since the one holding the camera is rarely in ANY of the pictures from the day, I was lucky to have my mom with me who could take a photo of what *I* did today. :)