Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Cruising the Saints

Cruising the Saints is the working title for the journal of my recent travel adventure.  We left on Sunday, February 9th for a 10:00pm departure from San Juan to the Eastern Caribbean.  The seven day cruise took us to five islands before returning to port the following Sunday.  We chose to stay an extra day, in part to save money on airfare, but also to take-in the sights of another "saintly" destination.

I plan to write in depth about the trip, and perhaps post a few snippets here on the blog as well, but for now I thought I would give a Best of... summary of the trip.

Day 1:  Departure
We had booked the trip over six months ago.  At the time, Geoff and I decided to try a balcony room - a slight upgrade from the ocean view stateroom from our first cruise last year.

As luck would have it... we received a call from Carnival on Saturday afternoon offering us another upgrade for an incredibly low price.  The room was a suite, which included a couch and comfortable seating for eight, plus a vanity area and desk, plus a bath with double sinks and jacuzzi tub, plus a double-sized deck area on the port side.  

While the room itself was far larger than we needed, I must confess that the double balcony was well worth every penny.  This was our view before leaving the San Juan port .... and an equally nice view each and every day.

Day 2:  St. Thomas
In preparation for the trip as well as my writing plans afterwards, I did some preliminary research for each island.  St. Thomas was probably the most commercial of the islands we visited, but I did learn that the 99 steps (which really consists of 103) offered a nice view of the port area, and for those who are so inclined, a tour of Blackbeard's Castle provided a historical perspective.

We considered two beaches:  Coki Beach, associated with the Coral World Ocean Park, and known for its snorkeling adventures, and  Magen's Bay which is considered one of the world's top ten picturesque beaches.  We opted for the latter and were not disappointed. 

The beach is small and one can easily walk from one end to the other.  We were surprised to find pelicans nesting in the trees above the rocks, and took great joy in watching them dive into the water for a bite to eat.

As a side note... the sun in the tropics is fierce and while I tried to stay in the shade the entire time we were there, the one-hour beach walk was too much for my sensitive skin.  The tops of my feet were burnt to a crisp.

Day 3:  Day at Sea
While St. Thomas is but a short 75 mile jaunt from San Juan, the itinerary for the rest of the trip was to travel to the southern most island and then backtrack home.  The total distance between St. Thomas and Barbados is about 500 miles, which takes the 3,000 passenger ship approximately 36 hours.

To be honest, I was looking forward to this leisurely day at sea, and in my element on the Serenity Deck (21 years or older) lying on the shaded couch reading and journaling to my heart's content.  There were plenty of on-board activities for those who desire a bit more excitement in life, and the food, of course, was never-ending.

Unfortunately, there was an emergency on the ship and we had to make a detour to Martinique so a passenger could receive medical attention.  We were very impressed with the constant communication that the ship maintained with the passengers, and with the dignity that was afforded the patient.

Day 4:  Barbados
We decided to try our luck and find a local taxi to give us a tour of the island.  They can typically be found in every port and at times can offer quite a bargain experience over the cruise-line excursions.  We were blessed to meet Colin within five minutes of arriving in the city.  Colin quoted us a three hour tour of the island, and noticing our cameras, appealed to our interests by promising to stop at all the best photo opportunities, including the Jewish Synagogue, and Parliament Buildings.  He was true to his word, and allowed to stay as long as we desired at each location.

In the end the three hour tour was actually four hours - and he took us to an unplanned stop at Bathsheba Beach - a true highlight of the island.  The large rocks, powerful waves, and smooth sand made for perfect photos and island relaxation.  If you are ever in Barbados.... definitely visit this serene piece of heaven on earth.

As a side note, all beaches in the Caribbean are public beaches, even those outside the swankiest hotels.  You may not have access to the hotel amenities, but the sand and waves are available to all.  St. James's Parish is the elite section of town and I am sure the snorkeling and swimming adventures are fantastic.  I was too burnt from the previous day's experience to take part in any sun-soaking beach activities.

Additionally, the beach closest to port is Carlisle beach.  I had read that sea turtles are prevalent and it makes for a great snorkeling activity.  Our traveling companion tried to snorkel out to the site on his own, but found it too difficult to swim against the waves.  I had read on Trip Advisor that "Nevile" offered a great deal and we did indeed see his boat carry out a family of four ... allow them to snorkel around the site... and brought them back to shore.  I would think it would be a good investment of time of money to search out Nevile, if you are so inclined. 

Day 5:  St. Lucia
In my preliminary research I learned that St. Lucia is probably the most diversified of the islands we visited.  Of course there is beautiful beachfront property, but in addition there is a drive-through volcano, a botanical garden with beautiful waterfall, several small fishing villages, and the Pitons, two large volcanic formations that rise large in the distance.

I also learned that the island is filled with hills, valleys and hairpin turns that can make your hair stand on end.  We decided that rather than take a chance on a local driver - we would splurge on a ship excursion and again... we made the right choice.  Our tour guide, Felixia (like Felicia but with an "x") was extraordinary.  Not only was she knowledgeable about her island, but her personality made us all feel like family.  

St. Lucia is sometimes called the Helen of the Caribbean due to its tropical beauty.... but there is also another side of the island - one that claims 25% unemployment in an economy that charges 15% taxes and has seen an increase of over 50% in utilities.  There is much poverty in this area and it is heartbreaking.  We visited the fishing village of Anse La Raye, where the panoramic views are spectacular but the lifestyle is depressing.  I do believe there were as many wild dogs and chickens roaming the streets as there were people panhandling their wares.

While we did not opt to tour the drive-through volcano (I was leary of exposing myself to the smell of sulfur, given my propensity to motion-sickness), we did see much of the island and then took a catamaran back to the port area.  As introverted as I am, I must admit that the deck party was fun and I was somehow coerced to get out and dance a bit myself.

Day 6:  St. Kitts
This island proved to be the biggest surprise.  Again, my research led me to believe that we might spend a couple of hours wandering the port area, but I really anticipated an afternoon of leisure on the Serenity Deck.  Instead, we booked another taxi excursion and saw a large part of the island that is not easily accessible otherwise.  

As is the case with most of these islands, they are formed from volcanic activity and there were several "black sand" beaches that offered a unique experience.  Unfortunately, most of these beaches are polluted and not fit to soak up the rays or swim in the water, but the views are still quite spectacular.

We visited a rum distillery on the Wingfield Estate, which used the islands native sugarcane to make the popular Caribbean beverage, and that was adjacent to the Caribelle Batik.  This was the highlight of the island for me - and I would highly encourage anyone to take the time to visit the beautiful grounds, watch the demonstrations and browse the lovely handmade items in the shop.  We only had ten minutes which we managed to stretch to twenty... but I could easily spend an hour or more here.

The most beautiful beach area was Frigate Bay, which is completely surrounded with upscale hotels and condominium apartments.  The setting is simply spectacular and the water is that perfect shade of turquoise that you think only resides in photoshopped pictures.  

As a side note, the port area is extremely clean and offers a wide variety of shopping.  The clerks are kind, courteous and not at all pushy.  The monkey men on the street, however, are a different story.  The native Vervet monkeys are adorable and the handlers take full advantage of their charming appeal to tourists.  They put the monkey on your shoulder without asking and then demand $2.00 for a photo opportunity ---  not a bad deal if you want the picture, but be aware of the expectations.

Day 7:  Sint Maarten/Saint Martin
This island was the highlight of the entire trip - as far as I am concerned.  It is the only Caribbean island that I would love to return and spend an extended period of time.

Now, I am sure that a portion of the love-affair has to do with the French influence, as many of the people speak the language and maintain the culture that I adore.  And the fact that tourism accounts for 100% of this island's economy certainly contributes to the friendly welcoming atmosphere.  There is so much to see and do on this small 37 square mile island that I could easily return for a week and not grow weary.

The island boasts being the smallest land mass that houses two completely separate territories:  Sint Maarten, the dutch land to the south... and Saint Martin, the French land to the north.  Boats dock at the southern end and a brief walk down the pier takes you directly into the heart of Philipsburg.  The closest beach to the port is clean, well maintained with plenty of chairs and umbrellas to rent, and a boardwalk that offers any and every restaurant and shopping experience you could desire.  Just a short walk from this location and you will arrive at Front street, which is a major tourist destination for duty-free bargains.

My preference, obviously, was to the north, where we managed to see the bi-weekly Marigot Market area (Wednesdays and Saturdays).  There are two distinct areas of the market:  food stalls selling fish and local produce/spices ... and then across the way there are booths selling crafts, clothing, art and other such items can be obtained for a good price if you like to bargain with the vendors.  We purchased a few watercolor prints among other things, and then treated ourselves to a couple of  macaroons and a tarte de pommes (apple tart) at an authentic patisserie.  Tres formidable!

The highlight of this trip was not the clothing optional beach nor the market area, however, but Maho Beach (Airport Beach as it is known by the natives)... where the planes fly overhead so low you think you can touch the wheels.  It is most definitely worth a visit.  I would recommend standing a bit further down the beach in order to capture the "money shot" of the plane's logo, but this picture is good enough for this first time visit.  Believe me, I will return.

Day 8:  Old San Juan
Debarkation for self-assist passengers (those willing to carry their own luggage off the boat) began at 7:00am.  We were downstairs by 6:50am which proved to be the ideal time.  We were able to board the elevator with little trouble and we passed through customs and were in a cab heading to the hotel by 7:30am.

I wish I could say the people we encountered in San Juan were as friendly as those of the other Caribbean islands.  Sadly, there were several who didn't seem to care if they helped us or not, and many spoke very little English.   We were unimpressed with the staff at the Caribe Hilton (whose daily rate of $199 plus per night should indicate otherwise)... however... the visit to Old San Juan was indeed worthwhile.

Since we arrived so early... and were not allowed to check into the hotel... we were in desperate search for breakfast.  We managed to find a terrific local place, Cafeteria Mallorca, which served good food, strong coffee, and a healthy dose of authenticity.  Afterwards, we enjoyed walking the cobblestone streets in search of the San Juan Gate and then we made our way towards the Fort del Morro on the grounds of the San Juan National Historic Site.  While we wanted to visit the Fort San Cristobal as well, our stomachs were crying for food and the crowds of the first annual Circo Fest were a bit overwhelming.

While I do enjoy history, I must admit that my favorite part of Old San Juan were the colorful houses, the Spanish architecture and the cobblestone streets.  I truly felt as though I had been transported to a different time and place --- so European!

In Conclusion...
We were quite blessed by the weather on this trip (when I reviewed the ten day forecast, all islands showed a high chance of rain but in reality, we only experienced morning rain in San Juan the day we left) and the moderate tourist population (many times we were the only boat in the port when research showed that often five boats are more visit these islands in a given day).  The accommodations were perfect and the travel companions ideal.  In fact, as we were waiting in the airport to return home, we were already perusing the Carnival website to find our next cruise destination.

And as a side note.... while we did not specifically plan this cruise to be a Valentine special event, we did happen to celebrate the occasion while in St. Kitts.  I have avoided the Pandora bracelet craze mostly because I really did not understand the concept but... duty free shopping has a way of opening my eyes.  Geoff purchased this bracelet and cruise ship charm on the actual day, and then we commemorated our love for St. Martin's by buying one additional charm.  Thanks honey... for a great gift that will be sure to keep on giving.


6 comments:

  1. The trip sounds wonderful. We've been toying with the idea of going to the Caribbean instead of Hawaii next time we take a tropical vacation. We will probably still do Hawaii next December with our son and his family, but after that, I think it might be time to go east instead of west.

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  2. Oh, Molly! This sounds like an amazing trip and your writing is so vivid I feel like I've been on vacation as well! Thank you!

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  3. Ha! That was supposed to be from me (Liz), although I'm sure Rodg agrees with me wholeheartedly:)

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  4. Cathy - I have never been to Hawaii, but hope to one day. I can vouch for the Caribbean, however, as being a great place to relax and become reacquainted with the muse :)

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  5. Rodger/Liz :) --- thank you so much for the kind comments. It is my hope to someday write about the places I visit in a such a way that the armchair traveler can feel transported, for at least a few brief minutes.

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  6. Wow great trip! thx for sharing. I have always wanted to go to these islands!

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