Written by Tam - with comments by Deb in red

This year sees a number of celebrations for the Churchills and Stringers – firstly Kev and I celebrate our 25th wedding Anniversary in April, Deb celebrates her 50th birthday in July, Georgia is 18 in October and India will be 21 in November.

But perhaps, most importantly, 2011 is the 10th anniversary of the meeting of the Churchills and the Stringers, at the first ever South West DIS meet on Deb’s 40th birthday In July 2001 . A meeting, which started an amazing friendship, which has blossomed over the years and seen us share our ups and downs, experience lots of firsts together
(Deb: Wayhay, baby! (Tam, are you sure you ought to be sharing this?) and generally enhanced our lives in such a positive way. They are without doubt, our bestest of best friends.

Deb: Just a couple of days before my birthday, we cancelled the party we’d been planning because my mum had been very ill and we simply weren’t feeling up to a big celebration. The morning of my 40th dawned with the prospect of nothing more than a long empty day ahead of us. We made the impromptu decision to attend the DIS meet and will forever be grateful for whatever karmic forces were in play that day.

The plan was to celebrate each of these auspicious occasions with a special celebration. Hence the planning started.
It was obvious we couldn’t accommodate all of us in our holiday plans as the girls are now at college and university respectively and we didn’t want to go during the school holidays. It was Deb’s prerogative to choose where and when, as Kev had done for his 50th two years ago. We suggested a cruise and Deb said she had been thinking the same thing. Our original thoughts were Disney’s Dream but then a Mexican itinerary was thrown into the mix and the two didn’t combine. Then a good friend of ours, well Deb and Matt’s friends originally but we now count them as our friends, (Gareth and Jane) mentioned that it was Jane’s 50th birthday in 2011 and she would like to celebrate with the four of us and they had also been thinking of doing a cruise. So four became six.
Gareth and Jane aren’t Disney people and it would have taken a huge leap of faith on their part to consider the Dream. They had however sailed on Celebrity on their honeymoon, a year previously, and we had sailed with Celebrity in 2008. Therefore it seemed like fate when Gareth said there was a new ship being launched which was doing a Mexican itinerary in 2011 – The Celebrity Eclipse.

Itinerary and ship agreed, we concurred that we should all book the same category stateroom – the favoured option was concierge and this meant we could get aft cabins. Having previously sailed out of Miami on the NCL Jewel in aft staterooms we knew this was our preferred location. Concierge also meant we had a few extra perks thrown in like flowers, canapés, champagne etc., but as it was a big celebration we figured we were worth it. Jane also liked the fact that Concierge room service menu had a more extensive choice for breakfast, another bonus as she is a late riser and likes to relax on her balcony in the morning

Fast forward a few weeks and Deb’s brother and sister in law decide they would like to join us so we are now a party of 8 for the 7 night Celebrity Eclipse Western Caribbean cruise.

Deb: Daryl and Karen are new to cruising. My brother trained as a Deck Cadet with Shell from the ages of 16-20 and then went on to pilot oil tankers as a First Officer. Consequently, the prospect of sailing on a ship as a passenger has never appealed. However, they felt they should make the effort to join us for the big celebration, so it’ll be interesting to see how he copes.

Our itinerary is Grand Cayman. Cozumel, Costa Maya and Roatan. This is new for all of us so we are looking forward to exploring new territories.
In Grand Cayman Kev, myself, Gareth, Jane, Daryl and Karen have booked Stingray City with Stingray Sailing. We sail on a catamaran to a shallow reef where we get the chance to swim with stingrays before moving on to another spot for some snorkelling.
Deb: I can’t swim and Matt gets very sick on little boats, so we’ve decided to sit this one out. A big part of the appeal of this itinerary, for me at least, is that it gives us the excuse to simply chillax without feeling the need to be seeking out cultural experiences at every twist and turn. On Grand Cayman, Matt and I will probably just do the touristy thing of duty free shopping and bar-propping. This is the Caribbean, after all!

In both Cozumel and Roatan we have booked private tours to explore the islands and hopefully find some nice bars and restaurants.
Deb: Both tours will give us the opportunity to get off the beaten track and to see some of the more authentic parts of the islands.

Finally in Costa Maya we have booked an all inclusive beach resort where we can enjoy snorkelling, kayaking, cycling or for a more relaxing time – massages, an all-inclusive bar and a beautiful beach. Numbers are limited to 40 so it should prove to be a lovely relaxing day.

There are a number of speciality restaurants on board and we have booked all three, as they are all very different. Murano is an upmarket dining experience in a beautiful restaurant, Tuscan Grillle is an Italian restaurant and QSine is a quirky restaurant where food is ordered on ipads and served tapas style but in an unusual way – such as spring rolls on springs and sushi lollipops. I’m keeping my expectations in check on this one (Qsine).
Deb: From what I’ve read, it’s an inspired idea, but perhaps a bit lacking in execution. That’s not to say I’m not looking forward to it, but it sounds as though they may have some kinks to work out.

The ship has had some great reviews and we can’t wait to get on board and explore.

One other thing I should mention is that Celebrity offers a pre-paid drinks package. There are different levels ie soda package, classic package or a premium drinks package which enables you to sample any drink up to $12 – guess which one we chose? Not too difficult is it? Although this wasn’t cheap by any means it enables us to not have to think before ordering and as there is an amazing martini bar and a Molecular bar, which serves cocktail concoctions with dried ice etc. there will be more than enough choice to keep us happy for the duration. The package includes all alcohol, premium coffees, smoothies and bottles of water so we will definitely be making the most of it.
Deb: We have dubbed it the Maximum Drinking Plan and we intend to work it!

So now you know the where - the next question is when.
Kev and I fly out on 2nd March – we stay the night before at the Gatwick Sofitel (booked on airmiles) and then fly out with BA (also booked with airmiles) to Orlando. We pick up a car – booked through Dollar and then head straight to Bay Lake Towers where we have a 1 bedroom with Castle View booked for 3 nights. Once checked in we aim to head straight to Top of The World lounge for a drink, snack and to watch Wishes before retiring to bed.

The next day we are off to Epcot for the day. It will be the beginning of the Flower and Garden Festival – which we love – so we aim on wandering around enjoying the sights and sounds of Epcot with a drinkie or two. This will be our first visit to Epcot on our own without either the girls, friends, or family since 1990 so it will be a real novelty and rather weird. In the evening we have booked Tokyo Dining, as we have not eaten there before. Then, to finish the evening, our beloved Illuminations.

Friday is planned as a chill out day – we aim to enjoy all the delights Bay Lake Towers has to offer – chilling around the pool and generally taking it easy before eating at Narcossees in the evening.

Saturday morning we will up early for the drive to Miami where we meet up with the rest of the gang on the ship and start our wonderful 7 night cruise
Deb,Matt, Gareth, Jane, Daryl and Karen are flying out with Virgin on Friday and staying in Miami the night before the cruise so they should have no problem getting on board and finding the bar before we join them.
Deb: We’ve all booked the cruise through Thomas Cook, but independently of one another. Gareth and Jane booked a package which includes flights and a hotel for the first night in Miami, which is likely to be the Wyndham Miami Airport (albeit that it’s since been taken over by Sheraton), but that isn’t guaranteed. We could have booked it, but couldn’t risk doing so at the advance rate (payment on booking, non-refundable). It’s a nice enough hotel, but the fully flexible rate was more than we were willing to pay. After much searching, tenacity and patience, we’ve managed to get a good rate at the brand new JW Marriott Marquis in Downtown Miami, overlooking the bay.

Our plans after the cruise are to head to Vero Beach where we have a studio booked for 3 nights before flying home on Tuesday. Our only plan is to get a taxi to Captain Hirams on Saturday night as they have live music. Apart from that we have nothing organised and will just see what takes our fancy – doing as much or as little as we want.

Deb: Gareth and Jane have several other holiday commitments relating to Jane’s 50th this year (which isn’t until December), so are just flying in for the cruise. Daryl and Karen are heading back to the JW Marriott Marquis for one night after the cruise and will spend the last two nights of the trip at the new Waldorf-Astoria in Orlando (before flying home with us). When I spoke with them last weekend, they still hadn’t decided where to stay for the rest of the week. They’re big fans of the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, but the prices are prohibitive for the nights they need. They’re considering options around Palm Beach (and may well have booked something by now). Matt and I will make our way to Orlando as soon as we disembark, where we’ll spend the week at the home of Simon and Susan Veness. We’re thrilled at the prospect of some new experiences and know we couldn’t be in better hands. We’re feeling stupidly excited and privileged.

So all in all an exciting 2 week holiday to look forward to and we just know we will have the most amazing time – filled with much fun and laughter – what better way to start a year of celebrations than with good friends on a wonderful cruise

Now I hear you ask - how do the girls get to celebrate their birthdays if they aren’t accompanying us. Well we have promised that we will take them to Glastonbury Festival if we can get tickets in the re-sale and although they are very grateful they are slightly miffed that they are not having a foreign holiday courtesy of their parents. However having had a holiday every year of their lives we are not feeling too guilty and they could always fund one themselves if they wish. Obviously we plan to celebrate their individual birthdays with them later in the year and hope to make them memorable

So that’s what the next two weeks hold in store for us.

Tam (Deb's comments in red)