PART ONE: Ain’t no Sunshine when you’re … sick, tired, and stressed
Sometimes things don’t work out exactly the way you planned. After lo, these many decades of living in this world, I’ve learned that lesson well. And when the anticipation is keenest and expectations are highest, that’s when something or multiple somethings are most apt to come along and zap your grand plans. All you can do is adapt, adjust and make the best of it.
The 10 day Journeys cruise on Carnival Sunshine was set to be a grand “family reunion” of a large number of the wonderful folks who first met up on the once in a lifetime Freedom repositioning cruise twoand a half years before. To say we had high hopes of that this would be one of the most special cruises ever would be an understatement.
And for some of us, it turned out to be every bit of that and more. For me, not so much. There were many different reasons for this, some of which had to do with Carnival and the ship and some of which didn’t.
Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t the proverbial “cruise from hell” – although there were moments when it felt that way. But there were also some wonderful moments, and the time I spent with the dearest members of my BCFF (Best Cruise Friends Forever) circle was priceless. As with life itself, there was the good and there was the bad and if there was a little more of the latter than is the norm on a cruise, well, hey — if you cruise enough times, it’s bound to happen eventually.
Did the experience sour me on the idea of cruising? No. Did it dampen my enthusiasm for Carnival? Maybe a little – but to be honest, that’s been coming on gradually for a while due to various policy changes, cutbacks, and my own evolving personality and preferences.
Did it make me want to run out and book the Sunshine again? Well, no. Been there and done that now, and probably won’t be doing it again. There are other ships I like a lot better. But now I know that based on personal experience, rather than just what I’ve heard second hand from other people.
How it all came about
To be honest, Sunshine would have been one of the last ships I’d have signed on for if not for those BCFFs mentioned above. A member of our group had booked this cruise, started the Facebook group and began persuading others in our “cruise family” to join in almost a year and a half prior to sail date.
At first, I said no. Reviews I’d read of the ship made me wary, and it was at the bottom of my list of Carnival ships I wanted to try. After checking air fares to CHS, which were a good bit higher than to most ports, I was further convinced to pass on this one. Then more and more of my best friends started booking, and some were very persuasive, and I finally caved.
After all, I’ve always said that for me, what makes a cruise great is much less about the ship or the itinerary than the people with whom I’m sailing. These were some of the people whose company I enjoy most, and it was unlikely this many of them would get together again anytime soon. How could I say no?
By the time I booked, cruise fares on this one had gone way up and there weren’t many cabins left. I initially, with much trepidation, booked an interior cabin (for the first time ever) that was right above the spa. The more I thought about it and researched the location and probable noise level, the more anxious I got about that. So to make it feasible to get a better cabin and also because it was the only way to convince her to join us, I decided to share with one of those dear friends instead of doing my usual solo thing.
I think I knew months prior that this wasn’t going to be the best cruise of my life. I couldn’t get as excited about it as I usually do, despite how good it looked on paper with so many friends, the special Journeys activities, and an itinerary that included a couple of islands I hadn’t visited before and that were on my bucket list.
As the time grew closer, the lack of enthusiasm turned into an underlying anxiety. Circumstances seemed to be aligning themselves against me; my dog injured herself, I found myself suddenly responsible for an unexpected new pet turtle, and my husband was increasingly unhappy about me going.
I came close to cancelling twice, and undoubtedly would have if not for my cabin mate. I didn’t want to disappoint her – and all the other friends who were looking forward to me being there. There was a monetary element, too. If I’d been solo, I could have switched out to a different, later cruise for a small fee. With a cabin mate, I’d have to just be a “no show” and sacrifice the money I’d paid for the cruise. I’d also be throwing away what I’d spent on air fare, although at least I had waited long enough so that the air fare had gone down by the time I booked it.
When I headed to the airport the day before the cruise, I had mixed emotions. I was stressed and really needed some time to myself without all the responsibilities of home, and I sleep better on the sea than anywhere else. I was eager to get away from all the political rhetoric that seemed to pummel me from all sides here at home. I looked forward to seeing my friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in almost a year. I hoped it would be ten days of calm, peace and relaxation.
On the other hand, I was worried about being gone that long and the portents of bad things to come only got stronger when my husband mentioned he had a sore throat and thought he was coming down with something.
The flight from DFW to CHS went smoothly and I hoped that was a positive sign and that my outlook was mostly due to not having slept the night before — that’s really the norm for me the night before traveling and usually doesn’t negatively impact my mood.
Then just as I landed, I had a message from my cabin mate, who had arrived a few hours earlier, saying the hotel room was tiny and horrible. Uh oh. By the time I got my bags and made it to the hotel, that problem had been (somewhat) straightened out, we were in an upgraded room at no extra cost and I was starting to feel better again.
After a little time to rest and get cleaned up, we ventured across the street to Walgreen’s for some last minute pre-cruise shopping for toiletries we’d forgotten and our one-per-person allocated bottle of carry-on wine. After taking that back up to the room, we went back downstairs with the goal of finding a drink and food. We also found a couple of our friends who were on the cruise with us, or rather they found us in the hotel bar (with a little help from a message from me). It was at that point that the cruise experience – and my review of same – really begins.
St. Francis Marion Hotel, Charleston
The St. Francis Marion is a historic hotel in the middle of downtown Charleston. When you walk into the hotel from the front entry on King St., you can’t help but be impressed. There are doormen to open the door for you, and after you figure out how to get your luggage up the small flight of stairs to the lobby level, it’s a lovely sight.
The lobby is spacious and beautifully decorated. The personnel at the reception desk were very friendly and helpful to me.
My cabin mate was in the process of packing up in the room we had initially been assigned, on the 6th floor. I got the keys to the 9th floor room to which we’d been upgraded and waited for her in lobby seating area. Our new room was designated as a “deluxe” room, which means it has a small sitting area.
Unfortunately, it has the same dollhouse-sized bathroom as the ultra-small standard room. According to the hotel personnel, the bathroom is 5×5 feet. Most of that is taken up by the small tub. The sink is minuscule with no place to put toiletries and you can literally wash your hands in it (and your feet in the tub) while sitting on the toilet.
Oh, it’s nice enough, the small sink is granite and the floor is marble. The room has a coffeemaker, flat screen TV, a small desk area, and unlike many upscale hotels there is free wi-fi Internet service. Just be aware of the size limitations if you’re thinking of staying here. The bathroom was very cramped for me and I’m 5’4″ and 130ish pounds. I honestly am not sure how a large person would be able to comfortably use it.
Although I wouldn’t really want to deal with that tiny bathroom over a long period of time, the hotel is very well located for someone staying a few days who wants to explore Charleston.
The hotel is right across the street from a very nice park area and farmer’s market in Marion Square. There are a number of restaurants within easy walking distance, and the Walgreen’s right across the street is very convenient.
The hotel is a little over eleven miles from the airport, which was an approximately twenty minute drive at 2:30 pm on a Sunday afternoon.
It’s less than a mile from the cruise terminal, which would be an easy walk without luggage – but even though I love to rack up the steps on my fitness band, I wasn’t about to try it with a 26 inch suitcase, a tote bag and an electronics backpack in the Charleston noon-time heat.
A bonus for cruisers: if you get lucky and your room is on the harbor side of the hotel (as our upgraded room was), you’ll have a view of the ship out your window when you wake up in the morning.
Hotel restaurant and bar
On the street level floor of the hotel is the Swamp Fox Restaurant and Bar. The restaurant has an “upscale southern” menu – boasting on the web site such items as “Award-winning Shrimp and Grits” – and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Prices were in the low to medium range for a somewhat upscale restaurant, but we passed on dinner.
We wanted to get a drink at the bar, which proved to be a little more of a challenge than anticipated. It was a very small area, with only six seats at the bar (all of them taken) and three small tables for four. We sat at a table and waited for service, but it never came. After 10-15 minutes, two of the people at the bar left and we were in the process of moving there in hopes of being noticed, when our friends showed up.
So we all moved back to one of the tables, and at that point were able to attract the attention of a waitress. Perhaps since there was now a male in our party, she thought there might be a tip in it to make it worth her while? Maybe there’s a four-person minimum for service? Who knows? At any rate, she came to take our order.
The drink menu was very limited. They didn’t have a blender, so no piña colada or other frozen drink. No Moscato on the wine menu, although they did have a Riesling. I had a glass of wine, which just made me hungry. But we had fun visiting with our friends – my cabin mate had so much fun and got so excited she broke the stem of her wine glass. Oops.
After that, we went in search of reasonably price food and came upon a Mellow Mushroom. Although this chain has an outlet in Rockwall, just across the lake from where I live, I had never eaten there. I got the pizza bites and (appropriately enough) mushroom soup, and both were good.
After dinner, we walked a bit and then parted ways when we got back to our hotel, as they were staying at a different place. I was exhausted from the long day, flight, stress, and fell asleep pretty quickly, but then woke up after three and a half hours and couldn’t get back to sleep.
To go or not to go?
By morning, I was already tired again, and getting messages from my husband, whose sore throat had blossomed into a full-blown illness, that further stressed me out. My own throat was feeling a little scratchy, but surely that was just a byproduct of the dry air in the plane and the sleepless night (I told myself).
I was almost at the point of just going back home and would have if I hadn’t felt so lousy myself – from lack of sleep two nights in a row, or at least that’s what I thought – that the prospect of having to wait around on standby for who knows how long and pay an exorbitant price for a last minute flight was just too much.
After going back and forth about it for hours, I made the decision and we packed up, spun up an Uber, and headed to the cruise terminal. In the days to come, I regretted making that choice a few times, but there were other times when I was glad I’d hung in there.
If I’d taken the other option, this review would be over now. As is, it’s only the beginning of what will be a long and winding tale. Stay tuned for Part Two.