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A Cruise of Firsts! - Empress of the Seas Recap - 12/30/19 to 01/03/20

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Hello all! Hoping you enjoy this "live-blog" style recap of my first cruise. A little about myself and the trip:

I was completely new to cruising before this trip. I knew it was something I wanted to do, and I knew that I would have time off in-between Christmas and the first Friday of the new year, so I decided it try it out. I tried to get a friend to come along, but ended up deciding to do a solo trip instead. I've done solo traveling in the past, so I was not worried about this aspect. Around the end of July, I worked with a family friend who is also a travel agent to find different cruises that fit my time and budget (including any flights that might be needed). I had looked at itineraries from other cruise lines as well, but this one stood out to me the most. Once I put down my deposit, I started some research and found Royal Caribbean Blog, which proved to be invaluable!

Part of my goal with this trip was to see exactly how much I could do included with the cruise. I didn't book any excursions before my trip, or on-board. I didn't purchase any drink packages, preferring to pay by the drink as I realized I would most definitely not be able to keep pace to make the deluxe drink package worthwhile. I did receive $50 on-board credit through my travel agent when she booked for me. I used part of this for a lunch reservation at Chops Grill on embarkation day, which I booked online ahead of the cruise. I did not purchase any Voom packages ahead of time, or on-board. I thought it would be a nice way to start the year, with some technology disconnect.

Itinerary

12/30/19 - Miami

12/31/19 - Key West

01/01/20 - Sea Day

01/02/20 - Perfect Day at Coco Cay

01/03/20 - Miami

I am still fiddling around with some of the photos I took on this trip, so please feel free to ask any questions in between posts!

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Packing

With the help of the numerous packing lists on here, I was able to pack efficiently and did end up using everything I brought (with the exception of the umbrella, but no complaints there). 

Some more noteworthy/helpful items I brought:

  • Lanyard & Card Holder - For my sea pass, a great suggestion I found on here
  • Ear Plugs - Living in an apartment building with some noisy neighbors, I normally sleep with ear plugs anyway, but brought them just in case. It ended being a good call as my cabin was next to a crew access door, I think for laundry
  • Reusable Water Bottle - Great for the port days, especially in Key West
  • Snorkel mask set - ~$30 from Amazon, which I believe was about the same prices as the all-day snorkel rentals, but the upside of bringing my own is I get to keep mine and know that no one else’s mouth has been on it 😂

 

Flight

I utilized the Air2Sea service that Royal provides. I flew out of Philadelphia on American Airlines on *gasp* embarkation day. I know now that this is NOT advised, but once I learned of the recommended flight in the day before through the blog, it was already too late for me to change. So I hoped for the best as my vacation approached and thankfully it all went smoothly. 

I don’t typically fly AA, so I was a bit concerned when I kept getting updates of flight time changes a couple weeks before my trip. My flight to Miami was originally set to depart at 5:00am, which was changed to 6:00am. Soon after I got another one of these emails, though less of a change, letting me know my return flight’s departure had been changed from 1:55pm to 1:45pm.

Time changes aside, my flights were uneventful, though extremely packed. I was expecting as much during a holiday travel time. Both my flights to and from Miami were oversold, and had the gate attendants asking for people with flexible plans to take a later flight for a voucher of an unannounced value. I will note that I was not able to make a seat selection for my flights before check in, as the website kept giving me errors when I tried. I’m not sure if this was because of it being booked through Air2Sea, or just a bug with AA’s site. 

Overall, I think Air2Sea is convenient, but I'm not sure if it really ended up being cheaper in my case. I think next time I would handle the air travel on my own, and with my preferred airline.

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To the Cruise Terminal

My flight landed in Miami around 8:50am. I hung around the airport for a bit to grab something quick to eat, and try to figure out which terminal the Empress would be. I didn’t see anything on my cruise docs, nor on Royal’s site when I logged in. If anyone knows specifically how to find this out, please let me know! I’d appreciate it for next time. I searched through these forums to see if anyone said where the Empress typically was. The couple posts I found mentioned Terminal G, so I decided to input that for my Lyft and go from there. 

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From the ride share area looking back at the terminal.

I followed the signage to the ride share pickup spot easily. Once there, I ordered my Lyft, and waited about 10 minutes until the driver showed up. Traffic was fine, until getting to the tunnel leading to the cruise terminals. Since I was early, there were still people disembarking from their cruises that were adding to the traffic. My driver took me to Terminal G, but the porters informed me that while Empress is usually at that terminal, today it would be boarding at Terminal J. I asked my driver if he’d be okay taking me further than what I had requested on the app. He was fine with it, and I made sure to tip him extra than I had been planning on for the trouble. I made it to Terminal J around 10:45am, making the total trip time from when I requested the ride about 45 minutes.

 

Check-In and Boarding

Outside of Terminal J was very busy. I didn't see any specific signage directing people where to check-in, assuming I was just there too early for that. I handed my bag over to one of the porters and he pointed in me in the right direction. Keeping my backpack with me for the day, I queued up to go through security on the lower level, where they checked my passport and ticket. I then took an escalator up to a second level to go through a metal detector and bag screening.

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Second floor of Terminal J, leading around to the metal detectors & bag screening (top left).

After the screening, I headed over to the Royal check-in table to get my Seapass. They confirmed the credit card I had on file as well for gratuities and other charges. One of the questions asked was about overall health, ie, if you had been exhibiting any symptoms of flu, nausea, etc, in the past two weeks. I hadn't, so that was that, but I'm wondering what happens if people say yes to this question? Do they bar them from boarding? Once I was checked in, I took a seat in the waiting area, getting ready for when they would start boarding. I started to look through the various info that I was given during check in, especially the map of the ship.

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Seapass and the map of the ship given to me at check-in.

I didn't have to wait long for them to start boarding the ship, around 11:10am. Once all the higher status loyalty members made their way on, they called for everyone else to start boarding. I passed on the photo op outside of the boarding bridge, but it looked like a cute moment to celebrate the start of your vacation. By 11:20am, I was in the Centrum and ready to begin my cruise!

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An instance where being on the shorter side is to my benefit.

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Day One - Embarkation

Once on board, I started to explore the ship. I stuck closely to the the Centrum area at first, just going up a floor at a time. I really enjoyed all of the little sitting areas throughout the ship. It was difficult to find places that didn't have a nice ocean view. I especially liked the Library area on deck 9, which has a decent sized collection of books for you to read at your leisure. I found an interesting book that I managed to read over the course of the trip, before returning it to its home.

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View of the Centrum from deck 6

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One of many sitting areas around the ship

I made my way up to deck 10 to get some ocean views from the top of the ship. It was still pretty cloudy, but I enjoyed the view nonetheless. I walked back past the pool and towel station, finding a ping pong area, some secluded recliners, and the rock wall at the very back.

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Recliners toward the back of the ship on deck 10

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View of the parking garage construction next to Terminal J

After taking some photos, I continued to explore the ship until my lunch reservation at 1:30pm at Chops.

Day One - Lunch at Chops

I made my way to Chops around 1:25pm. When I got to the entrance, the host stand outside was empty. I saw that the times listed on the wall for lunch ended at 1:30pm, so I double-checked on the Royal App to make sure I had my reservation correct. As I was doing so, the host came out and told me I was right on time, and took me to a table. It was very quiet in the restaurant, with only two other couples there when I was seated. Since we were still in port, the view was that of the cruise terminal, but I imagine that it's a gorgeous experience out at sea.

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I ordered the Charred Beef Carpaccio, the Filet Mignon, and the Grilled Asparagus. All were delicious, but I especially liked the beef carpaccio. Afterwards, the waiter brought out a dessert/coffee menu, from which I got a warm chocolate cake that came with strawberries and ice cream.

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Enjoying your trip report so far, thanks for sharing!

Regarding your experience with Air2Sea, you are correct that it generally doesn't save much money on domestic flights vs. booking it yourself or through your travel agent. But, given that you were flying in on embarkation day I would say that you still did the right thing by going through Air2Sea. Had your flight been delayed, it would have been Air2Sea's / Royal's job to make sure that either the ship waited for you to arrive, or if the delay was too long for that, they would have had to get you to the next port where you could board the ship on their own nickel.

If you ever do an overseas trip and need a flight there and/or back, definitely go through Air2Sea. They get some killer pricing on international flights, and on many of those they don't require you to pay them until final payment date.

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13 minutes ago, JLMoran said:

Enjoying your trip report so far, thanks for sharing!

Regarding your experience with Air2Sea, you are correct that it generally doesn't save much money on domestic flights vs. booking it yourself or through your travel agent. But, given that you were flying in on embarkation day I would say that you still did the right thing by going through Air2Sea. Had your flight been delayed, it would have been Air2Sea's / Royal's job to make sure that either the ship waited for you to arrive, or if the delay was too long for that, they would have had to get you to the next port where you could board the ship on their own nickel.

If you ever do an overseas trip and need a flight there and/or back, definitely go through Air2Sea. They get some killer pricing on international flights, and on many of those they don't require you to pay them until final payment date.

Ah, I wasn’t aware of those parts! Many thanks, definitely some more benefits then.

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44 minutes ago, JLMoran said:

 

If you ever do an overseas trip and need a flight there and/or back, definitely go through Air2Sea. They get some killer pricing on international flights, and on many of those they don't require you to pay them until final payment date.

Good to know for the Anthem Group cruise to Norway!!

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Day One - Ship Tour

After my lunch at Chops, I began to walk through the Shooner Bar, intending to go right to my stateroom, but found that a ship tour was starting, so decided to do that instead. Our tour was led by Bonita, who did a great job and was very funny too. Since the Empress is not too big of a ship, the tour didn't take very long, maybe about a half hour. We went through a lot of the places I had already seen on my own, but Bonita gave us interesting facts as well. She let us know that the Empress may be the smallest ship in the fleet, but "it's got the biggest heart," which I think echoes what @twangster has said in his many reviews. I also found out that the Empress's godmother is Gloria Estefan. I didn't know that ships even had godparents, I'm curious to know what the job entails. 😂

Day One - The Stateroom

At 1:00pm, the staterooms were announced to be ready, though I didn't make it to mine until after 2:45pm. After I the ship tour, I made my way to my stateroom, 4535. I spent a good long while roaming around trying to find my cabin. The numbering system and various hallways confused me, but I did finally find my way to the right place. It was not nearly as difficult to find after the first time, but throughout the rest of the trip I did frequently go to the wrong side of the ship when getting off the elevators/coming from the stairs. My stateroom was a regular interior cabin, which was plenty spacious for me, especially since I was traveling solo. When I entered, I noticed the TV was set to the cruise info channel, which still had Christmas music playing in the background. I unpacked my bag and then took some time to look through the Royal App to see what activities were going on around the ship. 

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Interior stateroom 4535

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The cozy bathroom

Day One - Sail Away & Sunset

Having had a brief rest, I went up to the Viking Crown Lounge, where they were holding a raffle for $500 (Two $100 prizes, Two $150 prizes) in credits to the Vitality Spa. It was very simple, just filling out a card and dropping it into their raffle container. Wasn't lucky enough to win this time. With the raffle finished, I went back towards the pool area for the sail away party. Finally the clouds had started to give way!

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Lots of dancing to be had at the Sail Away party. And feel good dog videos on the big screen.

After a little bit of dancing and taking in the views on the sun deck, I found a recliner to relax and listen to the live Caribbean music provided by the Mass Effect band. They've got a great sound and presence, I enjoyed them the whole trip. As the sun set, more of the clouds dispersed to allow for some beautiful sunset views and photos.

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Day One - Evening Activities & MDR Dinner

I had the later, 8:30pm seating time for dinner in the main dining room, so while I waited, I decided to catch the night's movie being shown on the pool deck, Crazy Rich Asians. Loved the movie, though viewing angles were a little awkward. I appreciated that the movie had captioning as well. It definitely got colder up on the pool deck now that the sun had gone down, so I grabbed a towel at the towel station as a stand in for a blanket while I watched the movie.

Once the movie finished, I popped back down to my cabin to do a quick change into some nicer clothes for my dinner in the MDR. I went with a blouse and a nicer pair of dark jeans. I had been worried about what exactly the dress code entailed, but there didn't really appear to be anything enforced. At my table, I was joined by another solo traveler, and a family of three. There were other seats available, but no one else came the two days I had dinner there. My tablemates were nice, but not very interested in talking.

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Dinner menu in the MDR for the first night.

I ended up ordering the Baked French Onion Soup, the Roasted Chicken Breast, and the Warm Hazelnut Chocolate Cake. No complaints on any of the food. I was surprised to see how large the French Onion Soup was, so tasty! I skipped taking photos of this meal, I was feeling a little self-conscious around my tablemates.

After dinner, I took a seat in the lower level of the Royal Theater, to the right side, to watch the Welcome Aboard Showtime, which started at 9:45pm. There was an area reserved for Key guests at the back of the lower level, but it didn't seem particularly full. The show consisted of little bits of entertainment from the orchestra, featured dancers, and a comedy set. Our cruise director, Elvis, was so funny and friendly during his pieces, I almost wish he had his own comedy set! During the show, I felt myself swaying with the ship a little bit more than I liked, so I headed back to my stateroom once it was finished, took some motion sickness medication, and headed to bed.

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Day Two - Morning in Key West

I woke up around 7:00am the next morning. My ear plugs worked wonderfully, but I was woken up partly by what I am assuming were vibrations from the ship coming into port. A little scary at first before I made sense of it. I hopped into some athletic wear to go try out the gym, located above the Viking Crown Lounge. It was quite busy, but I suppose a lot of people had the same idea of getting in a workout before the day in port. I picked out an elliptical, but didn't stay terribly long. I realized that I'm so used to streaming music, I only had about five songs actually loaded onto my phone. That, and the squeaking of my machine, made me want to wrap things up quick and get along with my day. We docked in Mallory Square, along with a Carnival ship. I did not hear the announcement, but we got the all clear to disembark around 8:00am.

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Start of the day in Mallory Square

I went to Windjammer for the first time to grab some breakfast, taking great care to wash my hands. I was happy to find that they had whole kiwi, which is a favorite of mine but I rarely think to buy on my own. I found a nice barstool type area on the left side of the ship, near the entrance and what is the Kids Area for food at dinner time.

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I enjoyed the waffles and fresh kiwi and much as the view.

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A much sunnier morning than the previous day.

Once I finished up breakfast, I made my way back towards the rock wall. I was excited to try it out, as the last time I did rock climbing was back as a child at summer camp. When it opened at 9:00am, there was just myself and another family there. I got all set up with footwear and my harness, and the staff were very encouraging and helpful with tips on how to best scale it. I went on the easy side and, oh my gosh, I did not think it would be that difficult! All those little kids I saw flying up the wall the day before made it look so easy! The staff helped me get almost to the top before I had to call it quits and come back down. My arms were very tired, I think I was relying on them too much, rather than my legs. Even though I knew I was strapped in to the harness and very safe, when I got to the part where the wall starts tilting back near the top, it was an exhilarating sensation, a little scary. I thanked the staff, and happy that I gave it my best, went back down to my stateroom to grab a shower before heading out.

Around 10:00am, I made my way to deck two to disembark and start my day. I did not have a rigid plan of where I was going to go, but had a couple places in mind that I wanted to visit. In hindsight, I should have planned things out just a little better, as I did a lot of back-tracking to areas I'd already been. But, one of the benefits of solo traveling is that you know what pace is doable for yourself. What might have been too much walking in circles for some of my friends/family, was fine with me. A basic map of Key West had been provided with our Cruise Compasses the night before, so after taking a few minutes to orient myself, I started off on my journey for the day!

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The Empress in Mallory Square

 

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Day Two - The Butterfly Conservatory

One place that I had checked out ahead of time, and knew that I wanted to see, was the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory. I spent a little time in the marketplace around Mallory Square before heading up Whitehead Street towards the conservatory. The conservatory itself is on Duval Street, but I wanted to walk up a little more scenic way first.

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Lots of gorgeous homes, museums, and plant life to be had.

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I saw a couple of beautiful Banyan Trees. They make such lovely branch structures.

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Before I got to Key West, I had no idea how many chickens there were roaming freely, so I was quite surprised.

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Though not as business heavy as Duval Street, Whitehead Street also had many shops and restaurants.

After a leisurely walk, I made it to the conservatory. My ticket cost $12.90 after tax, though I believe you can get a dollar or two off if you purchase online ahead of time. The ticket allows you entrance to the conservatory as many times as you'd like all day. I went in first to just experience it and enjoy it, and the a second time after a quick break in the air conditioning of the gift shop to take photos. The butterflies need a higher temperature, humid environment to thrive. I think the temperature was about the same as the outdoors, but it was noticeably more humid.

When you enter the doors after purchasing a ticket, there is a informational area with small exhibits, videos, benches, and even some power outlets, if you're looking for a place to get a quick charge. Through there, there are two more sets of doors, taking care to only open one set at a time, as a precaution to not let any of the butterflies out. The conservatory itself was beautiful, and had such a serene atmosphere. It was wonderful to watch so many butterflies zipping around. Everyone there had the biggest smiles on their faces, myself included. It was like being in a Studio Ghibli movie. My camera doesn't have a great action setting, so I wasn't able to fully get the experience of having all the butterflies flying around (and for some people, into) your head, but I did get some nice photos of the sedentary ones. 

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The conservatory also has many birds in addition to butterflies.

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Crashing my shot to get some fruit.

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Day Two - Hemingway Home & Museum

After my second go around at the conservatory (where I watched a butterfly nearly hitch a ride out on a woman's straw hat), I decided to check out the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, at the recommendation of my step mom. I started walking down Duval Street, and eventually crossed back over to Whitehead Street to get to the Museum.

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This sign on the way there made me laugh, and also want one for my apartment.

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The Key West Lighthouse across the road from Hemingway House had a lot of visitors as well.

Entrance to the museum was $15, cash only. A sign at the ticket window asked guests not to pick up the cats that are on property, which was reiterated by the tour guides. I arrived just as a guided tour was starting. It was a very large crowd, not much space in some of the rooms. The guide asked us not to take photos during the tour itself, but rather come back through once we were finished to get photos. This was mostly adhered to by everyone. Tours are about half an hour in length, and what information you'll hear depends largely on which guide you have. You are welcome to ask the guides questions at the end of the tour. I wasn't fully able to hear the guide at times due to the large amounts of people, but it was still an enjoyable tour. 

At that time, there were 59 cats on the grounds, but it definitely did not feel like that many. Our guide told us that not all of the cats have six toes, but all carry the gene for it. Guests may pet the cats if they come up to you, but again, are asked not to pick them up. I'm not sure how they get all of the cats, if they are rescues or bred for the six toe gene, but all looked to be content and healthy.

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One cat enjoying the pool area.

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Relaxing by the entrance.

The Hemingway House is built on the second highest of Key West, at a whopping 16ft above sea level. This, combined with the limestone quarried out to build the house, means it has the rare feature of a basement, that the guides claimed has never flooded, even in hurricanes. The whole house is very nice, and I especially liked the second level's wrap around balcony.

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Part of the wrap around balcony. The lighthouse is off to the left of this photo.

Day Two - Lunch at Sloppy Joe's

I finished up at Hemingway House around 1:00pm, and was feeling quite hungry, so started back towards Duval Street to have lunch at Sloppy Joe's (my dad's recommendation this time). The atmosphere of Duval Street varies. Down by the conservatory felt a little more upscale, bed and breakfast type, but the closer you got to Mallory Square, the more it took on a party vibe. I briefly stepped into a Walgreens that looks like it had once been an old theater. I wanted to check out what the prices of sunscreen were here, as I had debated if the two 3.3oz bottles I'd packed would be enough before leaving. They ranged from $12-$15 for your typical sunscreen to ~$25 for high end sunscreen.

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It was cool to see massive trees like this in the middle of a busy area.

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This bar, and a couple others, were plastered with stapled dollar bills EVERYWHERE.

I made it to Sloppy Joe's and started looking for a place to sit, as it was self seating. I don't know how busy it is on a typical day, but for NYE, every single seat was taken when did my first look around. I waited in the gift shop area for about five minutes before going around again, still without any luck. Not even a barstool to be had. I was about to chalk it up as a loss and find somewhere else to eat when a woman approached me and said if I didn't mind sharing, she and her husband had a table at the back with extra seats. I thanked her, and followed her to a table near the kitchen.

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A margarita to go with my nachos. An excellent combo.

I had a lovely conversation with the two, who were from Jacksonville and had spent the past month renting a place in Key West to test out if they could run their business away from home. I told them about my cruising adventure so far, and found out that they had a daughter that was actually visiting Philly that day, at one of my favorite places in the city. The universe makes funny coincidences like that. We went on talking and listening to the live music for about an hour before we parted ways. I'm very glad I met them, and we added each other on Facebook to keep in touch. It's those kinds of experiences that make me happy to do solo travels.

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Day Two - Key West Afternoon Activities

After finishing lunch, I decided to make my way to Kermit's to grab a slice of key lime pie. On the way, I stopped by a cute second-hand shop, though I didn't purchase anything. I spent some time looking through the many key lime flavored items at Kermit's, there's so much! Candy, jellies, lotions, soaps, and even some surprises like olive oil and salsa. The also had samples of their limeade, which was delicious and very tart. I got a slice of pie and headed to their outdoor seating area. It's a nice, secluded little place with a koi pond, and a good spot to take a breather.

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The pie was delicious, I enjoyed every bite!

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Part of the outdoor area has a relaxing waterfall feature, as well as a koi pond.

As I finished my pie, the time was about 3:15pm. I didn't want to go back to the ship yet, but I wanted to make sure I gave myself extra time before the 5:30pm all aboard. This is about the time that I also realized, the other things that were lower on my list of things to do, and wasn't sure if I'd get to, were back where I'd already been. Oops. I decided that I would head back up Whitehead Street once again, so I could take a photo the Mile 0 marker (I had passed right by this on the way to the conservatory and hadn't realized it. The lure of magical butterflies was too strong) and another photo of the Southernmost Point of the Continental U.S. I had seen buses for a free Duval Loop earlier in the day that would have taken me where I needed to go for those two things, but I'm guessing they ended early for the holiday because I didn't see any while I walked.

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Me & the Mile 0 marker, start of US-1

Finally, I got to the southernmost point. There were many food and drink carts around, where people could get drinks in whole pineapples and whole coconuts for about $15. I did take a photo with the bouy, although I did so from a bench in front of it, rather than standing next to it. This is because there was a very long line of people waiting to take photos standing next to it. Even if I had felt like waiting, I think it would have caused me to miss the all aboard time.

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Many people lining up to take a photo with the Southernmost Point Buoy

I took a couple more photos out on a pier beside the Southernmost House Hotel before heading back down Duval street to get back to the ship. I got back to Mallory Square around 4:40pm and took a couple of photos in front of the ship before coming back on board. After dropping off my bag in my room, I went up to the pool deck to get ready for sail away. The clouds had come back in, so our last sunset of 2019 was not quite as big as I'd hoped. No pier runners today, but there did appear to be someone unhappily waiting with an officer as the ship left the port. Many in the square waved as we departed, and we waved back as we headed back out to sea for our New Year's Eve celebration.

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Various performers in Mallory Square as we prepared for sail away.

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Testing out the zoom on my camera to get a photo of this dog in shorts.

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A subtle last sunset of 2019.

 

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Thanks for your great review! I’ll be on Empress for a Canada itinerary in June. I love all your detailed descriptions.

I have a question for you about the ship’s theater. From the pictures I’ve seen, it looks like the theater has tables with two chairs (fixed in place?) at each table. I’ll be part of a group of three on the ship, and I’m wondering if there’s any seating in the theater that would work well for a group of 3?

 

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1 hour ago, TinyDancer said:

I have a question for you about the ship’s theater. From the pictures I’ve seen, it looks like the theater has tables with two chairs (fixed in place?) at each table. I’ll be part of a group of three on the ship, and I’m wondering if there’s any seating in the theater that would work well for a group of 3?

 

The tables and chairs were moveable, so you could definitely arrange some to work for your group of three. There is also cushioned bench style seating in the rows, so you could do two people in chairs and one on the bench around a table.

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11 minutes ago, ashonthesea said:

The tables and chairs were moveable, so you could definitely arrange some to work for your group of three. There is also cushioned bench style seating in the rows, so you could do two people in chairs and one on the bench around a table.

That’s great — thank you!

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