Cruising the Caribbean

We had a couple of significant milestones in our family recently – Ajey’s parents celebrated their 50th anniversary last November, and his dad just had his 80th birthday in June!! In Pune, there was a grand party for their Golden anniversary – and since they are here visiting us in Peoria this summer – why not keep the celebrations going!! And what better way to celebrate these milestones than go on a family vacation!! Of course, planning a vacation for a group this size – we were to be a party of 10! – involves a lot of discussion and debates!

A road trip was quickly ruled out – too many factors to coordinate, besides we would have to drive 2 separate cars, which would mean that for long stretches of time, this wouldn’t truly be a ‘family’ vacation! Not sure when the idea of a cruise first came up – but it was soon enthusiastically accepted by everyone! To add a new flavor – we decided to look at cruises to Alaska! Hot summer, cool glaciers – an absolutely perfect combination! And those videos – phenomenal views, this surely looked a vacation of a lifetime! Clearly, from the title of this post – we didn’t make it to Alaska! So what was the hiccup?

Most Alaska cruises start from Seattle – then depending on the length of the cruise, there could be 2 or 3 halts along the Alaska coast. The one common thing – they all have a port of call in Canada – which isn’t a big deal for those of us living in the US. But our visitors from India – they would need a tourist visa! Flashback to the first cruise we took – the Greek isles, starting from Venice – with one stop in Croatia. At that time, we were living in France, with a visa valid for all EU countries – hence Greece. Croatia, however, was not yet EU. We made multiple calls to the cruise line before we booked – and we were told that as long as we did not plan to get off the ship in Croatia, we should be ok.

Alas, things are seldom that easy – and at the port, right before boarding, we were told that we needed a Croatian visa which the port authorities would helpfully provide right there, at a special price of $200 each. In case of emergency, they said, and no, we couldn’t board without getting the visa. Ajey argued long and hard, the funniest argument – well, it’s funny 15 years later – Manasi had a US passport, she didn’t need the visa – so Ajey kept pushing her forward, telling the check-in people, she doesn’t need a visa, let her board. Mind you, Manasi was 3 years old at that time, and justifiably terrified at the thought of having to get on to the ship by herself. It was quite the scene – a howling Manasi clinging to my leg, saying she didn’t want to go, and Ajey tugging at her, yelling at the authorities to let her board! I often wonder what we would have done if they had really called our bluff and asked Manasi to come aboard! Anyway, we did end up (grudgingly) paying the money – but lesson learnt, review cruise itineraries carefully, and get any needed visas before you head to the port!

Back to the Alaska cruise – and the Canadian tourist visa! We were wondering if the cruise line would issue a visa – like the one we had for Croatia. But then figured it was probably easiest to get the visa in hand before we left – how hard could it be to get a Canadian visa, since they already had a valid US visa?! Well, think again! This turned out to be a full-fledged visa application on a portal – complete with uploading a gazillion documents – and most surprising of all, biometrics!! Now this was totally not expected – money, yes – but all this jumping through hoops? Come on, Canada!! Worst part – there was no available appointment for biometrics for the next 3 weeks! It didn’t seem to make sense to make all the bookings until we had the visas in hand – and the longer we waited, higher the prices were getting.

All things considered, it didn’t seem likely that the Alaska cruise was going to work out – what with the other constraints of travel dates and airline costs. Disappointed, it was back to drawing board – and now that the idea of a cruise had taken hold, nobody wanted to give that up! Where, where, where?! Mexico was out – the same issue with the visa! So was Jamaica. And then a light at the end of the tunnel – during a random Google search, a clause popped up – “Indian citizens with a valid US visa do not require a visa for the Bahamas”. Wait, what? Some more research, and sure enough – the Bahamas consulate site specifically calls out Indian citizens for the visa exemption. Still a little incredulous, I called the Bahamas embassy in Miami – even after they verified, it seemed a little too good to be true! But we decided to take them at their word – and finally, destination decided – the Kulkarnis are off to the Bahamas!!

Once the decision was made, other things fell into place. Since the cruise departed from Orlando, it made perfect sense to add a couple of days on either end of the cruise. Not only would we have a buffer for airline delays – more importantly, UNIVERSAL STUDIOS!!! After comparing different cruises, we decided on a MSC cruise this time around – and we were able to splurge on a balcony staterooms! Airline tickets, rental cars done! The last piece of the puzzle was the stay in Orlando. We were looking at hotel rooms – number of rooms, locations etc – when Manasi came up with a brilliant suggestion – why not look at AirBnBs? That suddenly opened up a wide variety of options – and we finally settled on a ‘super chic’ villa – 4 bedrooms, 3.5 baths, plenty of room for our family to spread out. Best part was that we were able to book the same villa for before and after the cruise!!

This seems like a good point to wind up this post – bookings done, bags packed – the Kulkarnis are ready to leave for their Caribbean vacation!! Watch this space – coming up next, all aboard the MSC Divina!!

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