Consider a cruise vacation: Okeechobee is a short drive to the ports

OKEECHOBEE — Okeechobee is one of the few places in the country, that I know of, that is within three hours’ drive or less to five different cruise ports. This means that cruise vacations of all costs and duration are very close to home. My wife and I like to take a cruise about once a year, and living here has made it very easy to find some good deals, and it allows us to visit some places that I thought we would never see.

So, where are the ports? One of the biggest cruise ports in the U.S. is Port Everglades, on the edge of Ft. Lauderdale and from there, as many as eight cruise ships can be arriving and leaving on any given weekend day as well as several during the week. The port is found at the east end of the I-595 Expressway, and is very easy to get to. From our home in Okeechobee to the cruise port is right at two hours.

Another favorite cruise port of ours is Port Canaveral, just north of the towns of Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach. Just a little ways east of the intersection of I-95 and Florida S.R. 528, on A1A, it’s smaller and less congested than Port Everglades, as it rarely has more than three ships loading at a time. Along the waterway in Port Canaveral is an area called, “The Cove,” which is lined with waterfront seafood restaurants with great views of the departing ships on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

There is a major cruise port in Miami as well, which is a bit farther away than Port Everglades on the end of I-95 and N.W. Fifth Street in Miami, and right on the edge of town. Still only two and a half hours from Okeechobee, depending on I-95 traffic that day.

To the west of Okeechobee is the Port of Tampa which is really out on the end of S.R. 60, a smaller port than some of the others, but hosting cruise ships most of the year.

Finally, and closer to home is the cruise ship port in Palm Beach which hosts trips to the Bahamas every other day. The port is really at the eastern end of S.R. 710.

So, what are the advantages of a cruise vacation? In my mind there are many. One of them has to do with the ability to walk onboard, and in your cabin, unpack one time and enjoy a week of travel while the world goes by your window or balcony. Another great thing about cruises is that most of the ships I have been on have some world class food. And, there are multiple places to eat during the day, and all the food is included in the price of the fare.

There are also multiple places to find a quiet, or not-so-quiet drink. But you must remember that drinks are usually NOT included in the price of the trip.

Additionally, a cruise ship is a ‘paperless’ society, where you don’t have to carry money or credit cards or ID, as in most cases your cabin key doubles as a charge card, and anything purchased on the ship, drinks, specialty restaurants and souvenirs are simply charged to your cabin by swiping your key card. You don’t have to worry about being bored on a cruise vacation as there is always something going on, from tours in port, to trivia contests, to ship tours, to enrichment programs where you can learn something even if you didn’t intend to.

There are about a dozen major cruise lines out there, with trips as short as two days, and as long as four or five months, and fares can be found as low at $199 per person, for a very short trip to tens of thousands of dollars for world tours that take months to complete.

Celebration Cruise line, from the Port of Palm Beach has two-night trips to the Bahamas that leave several times a week, for rates as low as $49.50, per person, per night and for that price you get a cabin, food and a trip to the Bahamas and back.

On the other hand, my wife and I just got back from a very nice cruise on Holland America Line out of Port Everglades that was 12 days long and we traveled all the way to the Panama Canal and back. There are trips of all durations and all different costs. Use CruiseCritic.com to read comments from frequent cruisers.

So, how do you find one of these cruises? There are a number of ways. In the days before the internet, the best way was to find a travel agent, and they would help you decide on a cruise, depending on when you wanted to go, how much you wanted to spend, and how long you wanted to be gone. After gathering the information, they would make recommendations and then book the cruise and hand you the tickets after taking your money. There are still plenty of travel agents out there, and some specialize in cruise vacations.

Another way is to do your research on-line and book the trip yourself. There are a number of travel websites on the internet that advertise on the television and any one of them will book a cruise for you and will work with you to help you with the decision-making process. I have had some good luck, going to the website of the cruise line and booking the trip directly with them. To do this, however, takes some time to look for the deals and learn about the cruise lines and decide where to go and how much to spend. It doesn’t cost anything to use a travel agent as they are paid by the cruise line, and the cost to you would be the very same as if you booked the trip yourself, directly with the cruise line. Indeed, sometimes a travel agent can get better prices than you can book directly, by knowing how to search for deals the cruise lines offer. You can get some really good deals if you book just a few weeks into the future.

This ship is Holland America Line’s Oosterdam, taken near the Panama Canal in November 2017.

What do you need to take a cruise? First, a willingness to travel, and a passport are the first two things that come to mind. As most of the ships leaving from our local ports are headed for other countries, it is important that you have a passport to prove you belong here, on the day you get back.

For some cruises, it’s important to take some nice clothes, as they will schedule a night or two to dress up, usually in the middle of the cruise, and expect you to wear a pair of slacks and a shirt with a collar to dinner that evening. When we first began cruising more than twenty years ago, it was standard for the people to wear very formal clothes to these dinners, but times have changed, and the entire country has become less formal. The cruise we were just on, two different nights I wore a shirt and tie and a jacket to dinner as did most of the men I saw. You are not forced to do this, however. If you don’t want to participate, you simply eat at the buffet restaurant that evening rather than in the dining room or have food delivered to your cabin for free. Also, take your swimwear for hanging around the pool.

What else do you get for your money? Well, on most cruises, you get a team of people on the ship that go out of their way to make your life easy. Every morning while you are out sipping coffee with breakfast, a couple of folks come into your cabin and clean it, and make the bed and replace the towels in the bathroom and make sure everything is ship shape. In the evening while you are having your meal, the same folks come into your cabin, and clean up again, and turn down your bed and reduce the lighting, and make it homey so you can get a good night’s sleep.

You will have a couple dedicated waiters in the dining room, that quickly learn what you like to drink with your meal, and will keep your glasses filled without being asked. They will take your dinner order and bring you your food and clear away the dishes and inquire about how the food is. Feel like two desserts? It’s OK.

The staff of the ship will entertain you at night, in a number of bars and show rooms. Yes, the shows are free. They will sell you drinks if you want, and they will program fun things for you to do. At the same time, the command crew will safely take you from place to place, port to port and meet the schedule of stops and will offer you multiple tours in each port of call, so you can get a good look around at this land that is not your home. They will provide you with recommended places to shop, or good beaches to go to, they will explain where the tourist district is, and where it is and is not safe to visit.

I find that a cruise vacation can be one of the most relaxing times of the year. Although there are lots of things to do, you aren’t required to do any of them. If your idea of a great time is a lounge chair next to the pool and a cool drink in your hand for several days in a row, a cruise is for you. I enjoy a private balcony on the cabins that we normally book, as it provides a place to rest, and sleep or read, away from the hustle that can be found other places on the ship during the day. I also enjoy a quiet drink in the evenings and there is always a place to do this on board, but if you are looking for entertainment in the evenings, there is always a live show to attend after dinner with singers, and dancers or a comedian or a juggler. In some of the smaller venues, you may find a guitar player, or someone playing a piano and singing quietly, while people sit around and discuss the day.

All of this is yours for the cost of the ticket to get on board the ship. In my mind it’s a very good deal and by living here in Okeechobee, the departure ports are all a relatively short drive away.

 

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