Our Caribbean cruise vacation: Part 2

If you missed part one, read it HERE.

Day 3: Monday, October 10th. This was our first full day on the Freedom of the Seas and a Day at Sea. There were so many things going on at all times but the only thing the boys really wanted to do was play at the pool. We were pretty okay with that.

As a side note, I thought it was interesting when we’d tell people that we were going on a cruise, many reacted with an “oh, you’re not taking the kids.” Ummm yeah, we’re taking the kids! “Oh, then it’s a Disney cruise?” Ummm nope. That cost twice what a Royal Caribbean cruise costs. “Oh.” It really threw me for a loop and I wasn’t sure if everyone else knew something I didn’t. There were fleeting moments during the cruise when I thought in the back of my mind “ohhh, this is what they meant.” For instance, there would be something Ryan and I wanted to do at 1pm but that would mean dragging the kids away from the pool at noon to get them back to the room, get them dressed, and drop them off at Adventure Ocean. It just wasn’t worth it. That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy hanging out with them – we did. There were just a handful of times that we thought, okay, it would be really nice to take a cruise as a couple sometime too.

We had 5:30 dinner every night and Monday was a “formal” night. This was something I really stressed over in terms of getting ready for the trip. I worried over what to buy and what to pack – and did WAY too much of both. I was afraid people would give us dirty looks if the boys weren’t wearing suit jackets etc. We don’t have jobs or lifestyles where we have to dress up so this is totally our of our element as a family. Of course I had some dresses, but the guys had little to nothing to wear before I went out on a mad spree two weeks before the trip. Ultimately, we didn’t go too over the top and I was happy. We could have packed way less but there were men at formal dinners wearing everything from polo shirts with slacks to full-blown tuxedos. The boys thought they were pretty fancy and handsome…however they had no desire to get dressed up like that again.

Apparently I didn’t take any photos at the pool that day. I can’t say enough good things about the Adventure Ocean program. Every night after dinner, we dropped them off there for about 3 hours so we could catch a show, have a drink in the hot tub, or just try to figure out excursions for the next day (big mistake not booking in advance). They absolutely loved going. They met friends who they would then play with at the pool the next day. The kids’ club provided them with entertainment, physical games, crafts, and so much more. It was great for all of us.

20161010_170201 20161010_171332 20161010_182659 img_2223 img_2224 img_2233


Leonardo’s Dining room – such a big part of my memories of our family time on the cruise ship!

img_2242We all enjoyed the towel animals that greeted us when we returned to the room after dinner every night.

Day 4: Tuesday, October 11th. Tuesday was our first port of call and we docked at Labadee, Haiti. With Hurricane Matthew making a direct hit on Haiti just one week earlier, I wasn’t sure if we would still be going there but there was never an update to our itinerary. Turns out Labadee is a small section of the island on the northern coast that is privately leased to Royal Caribbean in an area that was not directly affected by the storm.

Monday night while the boys were at Adventure Ocean, we spent some time trying to figure out our shore excursion for Labadee but we couldn’t decide what to do. Unfortunately, the excursion we’d hoped to do had an age limit of 5+ but a height limit of 48″+ and little Dexter just isn’t there yet. We ended up having no plan and decided to wing it the morning of. WELLLL let’s just say it turned out to be a good thing because somehow, somewhere, this gal lost 3 of our 4 Seapass cards. We were in the gangway when I went to get them out and they weren’t in the pocket in our bag where I thought I put them. After about 45 minutes of sheer panic, I went to guest services like a puppy with his tail between his legs and told them I lost 3 of our cards. The dude definitely seemed annoyed but within 5 minutes we had new cards and were on our way off the ship.

I was stressed, I’d been lugging 2 bags and dragging my now-grouchy kids all over the ship looking for those dumb cards, and I was ready to relax. We went up to a golf cart and said something along these lines: “please take us to a cabana that we can rent so that we will have a place to sit all this crap down and start enjoying our day.”

Had we taken 10 minutes to check out Labadee, we would have discovered that we could have hung out on the beautiful beach (beach chairs provided) for free. However, we did enjoy our cabana, the beach, the floating beach mats, the cocktails, and the private buffet. I have to admit, I kept thinking about the locals. The people that were serving us fruity drinks and food and cleaning up after us faster than we could clean up after ourselves. I felt like a jerk. I felt like a stupid spoiled American for being there on this beautiful little piece of their island that was in utter ruins on the other side of the mountain. People died…probably family members and friends of the people who were serving us. People lost their homes. We were crabby because we were inconvenienced by misplacing cards and hauling around heavy bags full of cameras, sunscreen, and beach towels in the Caribbean heat. Yeah…jerks.

Despite being a loser (of SeaPass cards) and my guilty conscience about being a privileged American, we had a great time. It was gorgeous. I was not expecting to be as impressed as I was but we loved it there. I wish we could have stayed longer and explored the area a bit more.



img_2246 img_2262 img_2264 img_2266 img_2273

img_2297 20161011_094721

img_2295 img_2307 img_2311 img_2315 img_2332 img_2333 img_2335 img_2337 img_2340 img_2342 img_2350 img_2363 img_2369 img_2390

We were back on the Freedom for a 330pm departure from Haiti so we got ready for dinner and then rushed the boys to Adventure Ocean because they didn’t want to miss out on the “Pirate Parade”. Those brave childcare staff took all the kids down to the Royal Promenade to sing pirate songs and dance pirate dances. I was impressed at how organized it was and how well all the kids did – you would have thought they’d been practicing for a week. It was kind of adorable how excited they were and then multiply that times one hundred when they realized we were there, watching the parade!


Better believe I rushed down to the gift shop and bought some lanyards after getting our SeaPass cards replaced!



We went to bed happy, ready for a big day in Jamaica on Wednesday.



Our Caribbean cruise vacation: part 1

We’ve been home from our much anticipated cruise vacation for just over 2 weeks now and I’m still in a little bit of a euphoric/bittersweet fog thinking about it. I booked it with 410 days to go on our cruise countdown and much to my disbelief, it has already come and gone.

Hurricane Matthew was bearing down on the Atlantic coast of Florida Friday afternoon, October 7th. The day we were supposed to load up and drive down. We were frantically watching the weather channel all week leading up to the 7th as the storm slowly approached the US. By late Thursday night, it started to look as though the eye would not be making direct contact with the shore as the meteorologists, Florida residents, and many vacationers feared. Since there was still so much that was unknown on Thursday night, I cancelled our Cape Canaveral hotel for Saturday night and switched the reservation to a hotel more inland in Ocala, a couple hours from the coast.

Friday we decided not to leave until midnight since our destination was now 2 hours closer to home and since we figured many evacuees would be trying to get back into their homes on Saturday morning. I was so worried about driving all night. How tired would I get? Would the boys sleep? What if there was traffic or construction problems? I pictured the drive down there and back as being as monumental of an event as the cruise itself. The boys were GREAT in the car. They are wonderful road trippers. They really entertained themselves well with coloring, writing, drawing, and sticker books. They didn’t complain a lot and for that, I am so thankful. This was our first really long road trip (16 hours total) so I worried about how we would all deal.

We checked into our hotel in Ocala around 230 or 3 then ate a late lunch/early dinner at a neat local place. We were all pretty exhausted and in bed by 8pm.

Somewhere between the Florida state line and Ocala, it occurred to me that we had to drive through Orlando Sunday morning to get to the port. That must have been around the same time that I found out that our cruise was scheduled to depart a couple hours later in order to allow for some extra travel time. Since we weren’t short on time, I covertly had Ryan check online for breakfast reservations at Disney World. Being less than 24 hours before breakfast, I wasn’t expecting much. I thought we might squeeze in at a lesser known resort and just enjoy the Disney ambiance. The beauty of checking reservations at the last minute is that people get there, change their minds, and rearrange their plans. Lo and behold, we were able to snag 10am reservations at one of the Character dining experiences that has been on my Disney bucket list for quite a while. This one is 1900 Park Fare, located inside of the Grand Floridian resort.

We got to meet Alice and the Mad Hatter, Pooh and Tigger, and Mary Poppins. That’s a lot of bang for your buck and the breakfast was delicious. It was such a fun surprise for the boys. Leading up to the cruise, Dexter kept saying “I can’t believe we’re driving ALL the way to Disney!” We told him over and over and over and over that we were driving to the CRUISE, not to Disney. You can imagine how great he felt telling us “told ya so” when he started noticing the distinct Mickey road signs everywhere. We were all floating on that Disney cloud and it was kind of hard to leave, even if it was so that we could go on a fantastic vacation.

We took a few minutes to walk around the resort. We’d never stepped foot on the Grand Floridian property before so I wanted to check it out a little bit. Honestly, I was curious to see the changes they’d made since little Lane Graves died there in June. I know this is weird, but I wanted to stand there where it happened and try to put myself in his parents’ place. I tried to imagine feeling what they felt, the tension and raw emotion in the air there that night as they waited and in the days following the tragedy. I closed my eyes and felt the same sun on my back. I took my flip flops off and felt the same sand under my feet. I couldn’t do it. I could not even begin to fathom losing a child, so tragically, and during what was supposed to be such a happy time. My heart hurt for them. It still does. Can you imagine leaving vacation with one less family member?

After I had taken a few moments honoring Lane and his family, we moved on and headed over to Cape Canaveral. One good thing about the Hurricane passing through there was that all tolls were suspended. Since I’m not used to tolls, they stress me out and it was nice to skip that. We parked, took our shuttle to the Royal Caribbean terminal, and got checked in without a hitch. The entire process was quick, painless, and seamless. We were on the boat by 1:30 and our luggage showed up to our room a couple of hours later. We were excited to eat at the Windjammer for lunch and check out the ship.

We swam and goofed off until it was time to do the safety briefing. As we were hanging out on the deck, we watched a Disney cruise ship and a Carnival cruise ship head out. As it turns out, we knew people on both of those ships. That was a neat feeling. Royal Caribbean notified us that we would be leaving port at 9pm but everyone must have made it on early because we pulled away around 6 or 630 – right at sunset. It was a beautiful and exciting start to our cruise!

The boys went to a mini-session at Adventure Ocean (the kids’ program) to get a feel for it. Theo was nervous but ended up doing fine and they both had a great time. We tried to go to a show at 10pm and everyone was falling asleep so we headed back to our tiny little cabin and called it a day. The sea was REALLY rough that night as the hurricane winds were still moving out and we were sailing at top speed. I assume anyone who suffered from motion sickness probably would have had a bad night. Theo and Ryan both complained a little but no one got sick.

Pics! Day one – Saturday October 8th.

We hit Atlanta around 830am Saturday morning and stopped at the most interesting Chick-fil-a on the south side. Part of it was fast food and the other part was sit-down.


At some point when I was a kid, we stopped at the Florida welcome center and I distinctly remembered getting fresh-squeezed orange juice. For whatever reason, I wanted to do that with the boys. They also got a free map. Traditions are the best.


The Mojo Grill where we ate in Ocala. Delicious.


Two happy, sweet, tired little boys who didn’t know we were visiting Disney (sorta) the next morning.

Day 2 – Sunday, October 9th. Embarkation Day!



Mickey shaped food just tastes better.






We couldn’t visit a Disney resort without pressing a couple pennies.
The Grand Floridian is truly beautiful.

img_2092 img_2088


Being silly on the shuttle from port parking to the cruise terminal.

img_2116 img_2126 img_2136 img_2173

Photo cred goes to Theo!
“We hope we don’t need this safety briefing!”
They loved their bunks in our stateroom.

img_2179 20161009_203249 20161009_203143

Oh, all the reminiscing makes me want to go back already! Why didn’t we play the win-a-free-cruise round of Bingo?



Smoky Mountain Getaway

Just 2 nights after we got home from Portland, we were packing up again to head south to Tennessee. We spent Oct. 16-21 with family in the Smoky Mountains as part of the boys’ fall break from school. We’d planned this trip long before the opportunity to go to Portland came up and while it was a little tricky managing 2 trips so close together, it was soooo worth it! We had several days away from home and were home in time for the boys (and me) to unwind before returning to real life.

Friday night, Oct 16: Dexter fell asleep at his regular bedtime (around 830) and slept the rest of the way…then went right back to bed. Crazy! Theo slept for maybe an hour and was ready for bed shortly after we got to my mom’s house as well.IMG_7191

Saturday, Oct 17th. We got to Pigeon Forge around lunch time and had some time to waste afterwards so we browsed the shops at Christmas Place. The boys enjoyed some fudge, ring pops, pressing some pennies, and a free train ride. IMG_7193 IMG_7207 IMG_7210 IMG_7211 IMG_7215 IMG_7217

We got to our cabin around 3 and started settling in. My sister and her family got there a couple of hours later. The front porch with rocking chairs and a swing was a popular hang out.IMG_7245

We went to the grocery then grilled burgers and brats, then spent time just hanging out together. My mom, Ryan’s parents, and my sister and her family all stayed with us at the cabin Saturday night. My sister and her family had to go back home Sunday night because of work and school. I’m very aware of how lucky I am and how unusual it is for my family – the one I was born into and the one I married into – to get along so well and enjoy spending this time together.

Sunday, Oct 18th: A view of the beautiful cabin. We were trying to decide what to do on Sunday. Since all my family lives within an hour of Pigeon Forge, there’s not much they haven’t done. IMG_7260 IMG_7262 IMG_7268

IMG_7271After searching Google and TripAdvisor, I kept coming back to this quirky sounding attraction called Goats on the Roof that I’d never heard of and no one had been to yet. They have goats (yes, on the roof), a gift shop, a mountain coaster, gem mining, and and ice cream shop. Free to get in and look around so we gave it a shot. It was an interesting and fun place. The coaster was kind of expensive but we decided to do it anyway and we were so glad we did. It. Was. Awesome. I don’t know how to explain it any better than the internet did so go HERE if you’re interested.  All the kids enjoyed the mining too.IMG_7279 IMG_7280 IMG_7285 IMG_7288 IMG_7298 IMG_7307 IMG_7315

Did you know you can still buy candy cigarettes? Only they are called “candy sticks” and they are still disgusting. But when they come in a Batman box and cost .99, you go for it. Smoke up, Johnny!IMG_7335 IMG_7344 IMG_7345

Another new-ish place in Pigeon Forge that’s super touristy and fun (what’s not touristy and fun in PF?) is The Island. Lots of shops and restaurants and overall just a nice place to walk around on a pretty day, which is what we were dealing with. Rocking chairs all the way around a big, beautiful fountain. Unique shops. Something for everyone-I think everyone really liked it there. We ate lunch at Margaritaville, which was ridiculously overpriced (what’s not ridiculously overpriced in PF?) but good. IMG_7368 IMG_7373 IMG_7379 IMG_7382 IMG_7396

Theo did this cute ropes course for little kids and really liked it. If I’d been dressed more appropriately for the activity, I would have taken him on the big one. It looked awesome!IMG_7404 IMG_7409

He did great! IMG_7421

Penelope and Dexter were too small for the ropes so they got to ride the Ribbit thingy. Look at those little faces. Pure joy. So cute.IMG_7431

This is a stunningly good photo considering the number of people and the fact that it was taken by a stranger. To his credit though, he was carrying a camera similar to mine, which is why I trusted him in the first place to do a decent job. I love this picture and I LOVE my family!IMG_7463

Penelope, Steve, Cher, Malachi, and Isabella.IMG_7465 IMG_7467

My mom and all of her grandchildren. IMG_7473 IMG_7478

Back at the cabin, it was chili for dinner and games for fun. My sister and her family left after dinner. Early to bed for me, knowing we had a big day at Dollywood the next day. IMG_7488 IMG_7489

Monday, October 19th: Dollywood day! I was a little worried that the park had short operating hours (10-6) but that proved to be more than enough! I couldn’t believe it and I have never seen Dollywood so deserted. I’ve been to Dollywood a lot – we walked onto every ride or maybe had to wait 1 turn. It was fantastic. Dollywood is wonderfully themed and maintained which means a lot coming from someone so obsessed with Disney and their standards of excellence. Dollywood is right up there for me. IMG_7501 IMG_7503 IMG_7507 IMG_7514 IMG_7523 IMG_7534

Other than looking pretty and having cool rides, there’s even more that I love about Dollywood now that I have kids. There are a handful of rides that they are still too small to ride but Ryan and I don’t want to miss. My mom and Ryan’s dad were all about riding while Ryan’s mom browsed through Craftsmans Valley. We were able to take turns riding things while 1 or 2 people stayed with the boys at one of 4 different play areas. They also do the parent/rider switch thing (similar to Disney) but with no lines, it wasn’t necessary. It kept the kids moving and occupied so the person who stayed behind with them wasn’t getting bombarded with a million complaints about being bored. IMG_7543 IMG_7544 IMG_7558 IMG_7567 IMG_7580

We rode every ride, ate a sit-down lunch, and were basically done by 5pm. We milled around until closer to 6 just because it seemed like the right thing to do.

Tuesday, October 20th: Me, Ryan, my mom, and the boys went for a hike up to Laurel Falls in Gatlinburg while Ryan’s parents checked out the Old Mill area and restaurant. We’d planned to eat together but there was construction traffic and the 1.3 mile hike up to the Falls took longer than we thought. It was really fun – I was worried the boys would be super lazy and make it miserable for all of us but it went better than I expected. No complaints on the second half of the hike which was all downhill. If you have to take little kids hiking, that’s definitely the way to do it! Unfortunately I didn’t realize my camera battery was about to die so I only had a chance to snap a handful of photos Tuesday. IMG_7588 IMG_7590

After our hike and a late lunch, we went back to the cabin. We played games and started packing up for the trip home Wednesday.

Wednesday, Oct 21st: Packing up and moving out. When I planned this trip, I was thinking Sat-Wed in Pigeon Forge was more than long enough but there’s so much to do and our time there really went by so quickly. The end of vacation is always a little sad! IMG_7595 hIMG_7598 IMG_7601 IMG_7611 IMG_7615

Until next time, Smoky Mountains!