Miami Ultra & Bahamas Cruise

 

It’s 2014 and I’m turning 30. 30, for crying out loud! Turning 25 was a bit of a nightmare and I couldn’t bear the thought of being midway through my twenties so I decided that by the time the big 3-0 came around, I’d have something awesome planned to celebrate/commiserate/pretend that I’ve still got it.

One evening the previous year, I was on my way home from a meeting when an email pinged on my phone from Ultra Music, reminding me that the tickets for their Miami festival will be going on sale later that day. Being 5 hours ahead of the US, I knew that I had a bit of time to get home and get to the computer in time for the tickets being released. A naughty little plan started to form in my brain.

Later that night, I’m sat at the computer nonchalantly surfing the Ultra website when I accidentally manage to acquire 2 first release tickets all the way to the check-out page. Before I complete the transaction, it occurs to me that I should probably run this purchase past the other half before I hit “buy”. We’d actually discussed going to Ultra for our honeymoon so when I broached the subject over dinner, I didn’t get the usual push back. Nonetheless, I was pretty surprised when I managed to get another 2 first release tickets when trying again after dinner. I now just needed to figure out how we we’re going to get to the festival – it’s only 4500 miles away from where we live!

Anyone who’s been to Miami knows that it’s not the cheapest city to stay in. Add that it’s the famous Miami Music Week and Ultra Music Festival and that makes for a perfect storm of sky high rates at decidedly dodgy hotels. There’s also a big tennis tournament taking place so finding a room anywhere half decent was going to be struggle.

We knew that we wanted to stay within walking distance of the festival. I’d read that travelling from Miami Beach to Bayfront Park (where the festival was being held) can take hours due to road closures and the volume of people. Taxis would be impossible to get and, let’s face it, we’re knocking on a bit so traipsing for miles to get to bed after a full day’s dancing didn’t appeal much. Fortunately, one of my suppliers at work was selling reasonable rates at the Hyatt Regency in Downtown Miami and I could take off a small discount which made it a good buy. Within 10 minutes’ walk of the festival, we were quite happy.

After a long and very boring flight (our seat-back TVs didn’t work for the whole flight and 9 hours without any entertainment was like torture), we arrived at a packed-out Miami Airport. Me and the other half got separated at passport control and he had my phone so I couldn’t call him. I waited and waited at the bottom of the stairs in baggage reclaim but he was nowhere to be seen. The crowds of people were immense and a lot of people were getting angry at the slowness of immigration. All arrivals and connecting flights were processed in this one small area, there was hardly any airport staff, no information and absolutely zero organisation. A colleague had warned me about Miami Airport but I didn’t expect it to be this bad. It was a nightmare.

I eventually located the other half and we managed to get our bags and join the queue to get out. Speaking to other passengers, some had already missed connections because of the lack of organisation and a lot were very angry. Some had been through this before and simply said “welcome to Miami”. Whilst I can appreciate that we hit at one of the busiest times for the airport, another colleague passed through a few weeks after my trip and she had the same problems. My advice; avoid Miami Airport at all costs. It took us over 3 hours to get out the airport, on no level is that acceptable and it’s the worst possible welcome to a new city.

We finally made it to the Hyatt Regency and what a huge hotel, and I mean huge! It’s a massive conference centre with 100,000 square feet of meeting and exhibition space. The largest area alone can hold over 4000 people for a drinks reception! Consequently, the hotel was packed with delegates attending meetings for the 4 days we were there. Although this was my first time in a Hyatt property, I can’t say I was overly impressed. Our bedroom was massive, one of the biggest I’d ever stayed in, but it was old and tired. The carpet was so filthy I felt like I needed to clean my shoes after walking on it. It wasn’t great.

We spent Friday morning wondering around downtown Miami and getting our bearings. We sussed out a walking route to the festival and did a bit of shopping – obligatory perfume for mother! The festival was meant to start at around 5pm. Unfortunately, some idiots rushed a security guard at a gap in the fencing and the place was put on lock down. We didn’t know this at the time, of course, so we were waiting around at the main gates for hours before they started to let people in. Needless to say, I was pretty annoyed. We managed to get in to the festival just in time to see Eric Prydz, who was amazing, but I didn’t calm down and start to enjoy myself until about half way through his set.

Ultra, like most American dance festivals, are famous for their EDM. I, for the record, hate EDM! It’s bloody awful! But Ultra does cater to more discerning tastes in dance music and every act we saw was amazing. From Carl Cox to Marco Carola, Paul van Dyke to John Digweed, they were all brilliant. There were enough acts over the 3 days to keep us entertained. Some acts we were looking forward to had completely changed their style for the American audience – Above & Beyond, for example – and their set was terrible.

The best thing about US festivals, and something that you just don’t get in the UK, is the effort in to visuals and production. The lighting rig in the Carl Cox Mega Structure arena was incredible, the best thing I’d ever seen at a festival. The fireworks and pyrotechnics were also really impressive and it really added to the festival atmosphere. You also can’t discount the glorious Miami weather for putting everyone in a good mood and party spirit.

After 3 days of dancing and being on our feet, we were looking forward to joining our cruise ship for a little sojourn to The Bahamas. Most of the big cruise companies – Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean – do 3 and 4 night cruises from Miami to The Bahamas. As we’d never done a cruise before and wanted to give it a try, this seemed like the perfect opportunity. Because of the size of the ships and the number of beds to fill, you can pick up some really great bargain cruises out of Miami. Our ship left Miami on the Monday after the festival and visited a private island, Nassau and Key West.

In Nassau, we visited the Atlantis Resort and had a morning encounter with a dolphin before spending the afternoon in the water park. The water park is awesome and I’d go back in a heartbeat. The dolphin experience actually left me feeling very cold and I kind of wish I hadn’t done it. I fulfilled a childhood ambition but it actually made me realise that creatures that big and intelligent shouldn’t keep cooped up in tanks and fiddled with by humans. It’s not an experience I’d wish to repeat and I would actively encourage others not to either. Be prepared to be ripped off with the souvenir photos too, they cost almost as much as the excursion!

Key West on the other hand is an absolutely fabulous little place! We did a walking and eating tour guided by a friendly and informative islander. We loved the amazing food, colonial architecture, the Caribbean weather and American home comforts. We didn’t spend long in Key West but we definitely want to go back, it was such a lovely place.

After days spent ashore, evenings were spent on the ship. Although we were on the smallest ship in the fleet, it still catered for 2500 guests! There’s no chance of cabin fever with so much to do on-board. There was a choice of bars and restaurants from formal to relaxed and really no need to don the tuxedo and ball gown for the formal night if you don’t want to – we didn’t! Service was excellent and the staff work so hard. Most work 7 days a week for months at a time, so remember that when tipping; these guys really earn their keep. As all meals are included, you just pay extra for drinks, it was incredible value for money. Even totting up the drinks bill at the end of the cruise didn’t come as a nasty shock. Our little trip was a great introduction to cruising and I’d feel comfortable doing 7 nights at least for the next one. And there will be a next one! My only advice would be to get an outside cabin, mid-ship and as higher deck as you can afford. You’ll definitely want to be as far away from the engines as possible!

After disembarking on our last day, we had some time to kill before our flight so booked a Hop on, Hop off excursion through the cruise company who arranged luggage storage as part of the trip. This gave us the opportunity to check out South Beach and Ocean Drive. Whilst I did enjoy the few hours sightseeing, Miami is really all about the beaches, bars and restaurants. Although you’ve got the Everglades on your doorstep, I didn’t feel that there was masses to see and do in Miami. Nothing that took my fancy anyway. That’s not to say I wouldn’t go back, I definitely will. I’d just maybe fly in Fort Lauderdale next time!

Flying out of Miami airport wasn’t half as bad as arriving. We were flying home Premium Economy so had dedicated check-in and were through security really quickly. This was my first ever time not flying economy on a long haul flight and I was so excited! It definitely gave me the taste of a better life and I haven’t looked back!

Boarding was quick and we were called after the Upper Class passengers. Being like an excited kid, I was at the front of the queue, boarding pass in hand! Much like I was when we flew to Orlando. We made ourselves comfortable in the big leather armchairs as cabin crew came around with sparkling wine and orange juice. We were given menus for dinner as we fiddled around with the gadgets in the seat and got used to our home for the next 8 hours.

Dinner was served on proper plates with proper cutlery and drinks served in proper glasses. If you’re used to business class, it’s certainly not at that level, but it’s a sure step up from economy. The extra legroom and seat width are worth the extra cost on their own but the little touches like a better meal service, increased luggage allowance and nice amenity kit really add value. Like any upgrade, there’s a limit to how much extra it’s worth paying for but I’d certainly pay £20-£30 per flying hour for premium economy with airlines such as Virgin Atlantic.

We’d paid extra for premium in the hope of catching some sleep as we had a wedding to go on the day we got back to the UK, but we were so excited that we didn’t sleep at all. We thoroughly enjoyed the flight though and our bags were off speedily quick which enabled us to get an earlier train up to York and grab a power nap at our hotel before hitting the wedding. Can’t argue with that!

 

Date of trip: March 2014

Price paid: £750.00pp for Virgin Atlantic flights outbound in Economy, inbound in Premium Economy (premium upgrade was £150.00). £300.00pp for 4 nights at the Hyatt Regency Miami on room only basis. £250.00pp for 4 nights Bahamas Cruise with Royal Caribbean on full board basis. The Atlantis waterpark and dolphin encounter was £300.00pp and the Key West walking and eating tour was £50.00pp. Tickets to Ultra Music Festival were £150.00pp.

Points earned: 8500 Virgin Flying Club points for flights plus 12000 points for the lack of entertainment system on the outbound flight.

 

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