Through the open window of Antonio’s minivan, we watched as an artist’s palette of watery blues passed in a blur. We’d abandoned the hullabaloo of duty-free shops and tequila shots for a tour of Cozumel’s wild, windswept east coast, and had it, it seemed, all to ourselves.
One of the world’s most popular cruise ports, Cozumel Mexico welcomes up to 30 ships each week during high season. On a sunny February morning, my family and I joined the throngs descending upon the island. We’d arrived aboard Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas with one goal: To experience a side of Cozumel most tourists miss. My mission, however, extended beyond Cozumel. The port call was just one of many diversions offered during our eight-day sail aboard Royal’s megaship, and I was determined to ferret out unvarnished travel experiences on both land and at sea.
Everything I knew about cruising had been derived from three sources — David Foster Wallace’s essay, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”; a four-day geriatric-themed voyage I took once for an assignment; and “The Love Boat” — none of which enticed me to set sail. We’d never cruised as a family, and I always thought we’d eventually take our three daughters on one of those small, adventure vessels in the Galapagos or Alaska. Our family travels tend to skew in an independent direction. Giant aquatic malls aren’t my bag.
But this was a trip we wanted to take with my husband’s well-traveled mother, whose legs, as of late, couldn’t always keep pace with her adventurous spirit — and the Allure of the Seas promised something for everyone — especially our 10-year old, with her deep passion for all variety of manufactured fun. There would be a rock wall, an ice rink, and a different restaurant every night. There would be Broadway-caliber theater productions, free flowing cocktails, and Central Park — a lush, outdoor oasis right in the middle of the ship. But in the face of these elaborate gimmicks, would an authentic journey emerge as well?
At Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades, we zigzagged up the Allure’s gangway and halted at the end, momentarily overcome by the glitz of the ship’s soaring promenade. Shops, bars, and restaurants lined both sides of a wide, cobbled boulevard illuminated by decorative streetlamps and sunlight that poured through enormous skylights. As we stood there with our backpacks gazing at our surroundings, my husband chuckled. “Look at us!” he said, “We’re like real people!”
Later, popping a bottle of bubbly after the mandatory muster drill, we propped our feet on the rail of our balcony and watched Lauderdale disappear into the distance, nothing but endless blue ocean ahead. That our past travels involved bicycles, canoes, and hut-to-hut hiking didn’t make this trip any less authentic. I felt my cynicism begin to fade with the shrinking mainland.
A destination in itself, the Allure debunked most of my preconceived cruising clichés. The only exception being the pools on sea days, when thousands of lounge chairs were filled with humanity and the hot tubs roiled with what I christened “people soup.” We did enjoy a blissful happy hour one afternoon partaking of minty mojitos by the mostly deserted Beach Pool, watching the sun set while our girls practiced underwater handstands.
Day five found us in Falmouth, Jamaica, on the island’s northern coast. With deep roots in sugar and slavery, Falmouth contains the largest collection of Georgian structures in the West Indies, a few of which have been recently restored. Falmouth’s cruise port, built by Royal Caribbean in 2011, is a sanitized version of the historic town that thrives just beyond its gates — a town most visitors bypass in favor of port shopping or shore excursions to nearby Montego Bay or Ocho Rios, taking their wallets with them. As a result, pressure befalls travelers who venture into town — we were unabashedly asked for “contributions” when we visited the William Knibb Baptist Church and again at the high school where world record holding sprinter Usain Bolt attended as a boy. But understanding that close to 80 percent of tourist dollars don’t reach the local economy makes that pressure more palatable.
In lieu of spending our day at one of the all-inclusive resorts lining the coast, we booked a private driver through Paradise Travels in Jamaica. At the prearranged meeting point, Wilfred Burgess caught my hand into his enormous one in a warm handshake and high-fived my 12-year-old daughter with an enthusiastic, “You ready to go, mon?” We had only five hours to spend in this small pocket of Jamaica and knew we’d barely graze the surface of the area’s culture, but in our short time together Willy schooled us in everything from the economy and education to the best ways to prepare local ackee with salt fish, drove us along dusty, mountain roads where small herds of goats nibbled lazily at the lush foliage and brought us to Scotchies along the road to Montego Bay for jerk chicken and pork ribs washed down with icy Red Stripes.
Back on board, we ziplined and discoed and, on one particularly indulgent night, had one too many fancy martinis in the Champagne Bar. We also bonded with our waiter, Vincent, and his assistant, Luciano, in the dining room over conversations about everything from their long relationships with Royal Caribbean to food and wine, Caribbean history, and ideas for managing our respective kids’ social media obsessions. And for one whole week my mother-in-law spent time with her granddaughters and no one had to answer e-mails, or grocery shop, or drive carpool, or do homework.
The search for “authentic” travel experiences continues to be the trend these days — clearly I’m guilty of jumping on that bandwagon — but perhaps the focus should be on having meaningful experiences instead.
In Cozumel, our guide Antonio explained centuries of island history using a mural painted on the ceiling at the Palacio Municipal; introduced us to Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of fertility, as she gazed seaward over the malecón; and shared stories about his kids, his wife, his pets. When we said our goodbyes, my husband said that he felt that, even more than a tour of the island, we’d been given a lesson in life.Gina Vercesi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.