(Location: Eastern Caribbean)
Post 9/11, no one was traveling. In November, we saw a deal for a cruise at Christmas for $250 per person. We hadn’t been on a cruise, and the itinerary looked pretty good, so we figured how bad could it be?!?
We flew from Raleigh to San Juan, Puerto Rico where we boarded the Carnival Holiday. The ship was a bit dated, but our room was decent and even had a window. We were treating the cruise as a means to see different caribbean islands, and at $250 for 7 nights, we had pretty low expectations.
The entertainment at the Americana Lounge was hit or miss (mostly miss). The Tahiti lounge had a duet singing Fleetwood Mac one night. The “Reflections Disco” was dance music, and full of “junior cruisers” – kids. Rick’s Cafe was supposed to be a piano bar, but the piano guy was usually plastered and just played a few notes and told stories.
We opted for the early dinner seating, because the later one was at 8:15 and we would have been starving and sleepy by then (you have to be back on the boat by 4). You sit at the same table, with the same people, everynight. We didn’t have much in common with the table mates. Everynight they would ask what we did after dinner the night before, what we did on shore that day, and what activities we were going to do after dinner. It got to be tiresome, especially since they couldn’t understand why we weren’t doing any of the things they were doing.
The best part of the cruise (the boat, not the islands we visited) was the cheesy prom-esque photos and the nightly towel animals in our room.
St Thomas, USVI
We’d been to St. Thomas before, so we decided to wander a bit and take pictures. We found the Hotel 1829 (an awesome hotel where we dined several years ago – one of the best meals in my entire life!), and also hiked up the 99 steps (which was pretty pathetic because we kept stopping and were winded, yet there was this older guy there running them. He did four laps in the time it took us to get to the top!.) The view from the top was amazing, especially with a cruise ships pulling in to the harbor. Our ship was docked at Havensight, so we couldn’t see it.
The ship (hereinafter referred to as “the boat”) had a shore excursion to The Baths on Virgin Gorda, but since we’d been there before, and we’re not tour enthusiasts, we decided to “freelance” – a term that we learned at breakfast one day from a couple from Alabama.
We purchased two round trip tickets on Speedy’s ferry service ($25/person) and caught the 8:50 ferry. There were about 4 other couples from the boat on the ferry with us – all prominently displaying the blue Carnival Cruise beach towels (we hid ours in the backpack). The trip took about 25 minutes, and we passed the shore excursion boat packed with people along the way (hee hee). We got a cab to the Baths ($4 one way). The driver, RastaJoe, was very chatty about “11 September” (darn British date formatting) – we gave him $10 and asked him to come back for us around 2.
The hike down through the mangrove forest was exactly as we remembered. About a ten minute walk – when we reached the bottom, we saw the other people from the ship laying on the beach – they didn’t even realize they were only half way there. The hike through the boulders is absolutely breathtaking. These pictures don’t do the views justice. It was high tide and we had to crawl like crabs in some parts. We had the beach to ourselves for about an hour before the boat people arrived. Some complained that the beach didn’t have drink service – sheesh. This is one of THE most beautiful places I’ve seen (in person or in magazines) – not complaint material. The water was much rougher than the last time we were here – we watched “recently divorced single cruiser from New Jersey” get tossed against the rocks several times while body surfing. The boat people only got to stay for an hour or so because they had to move on to their “picnic luncheon and complimentary rum punch” so we again had the place to ourselves. Around 12:30, we hiked back up and enjoyed bushwackers at the Top of the Baths restaurant (awesome view and fresh water pool). RastaJoe returned for us right on schedule, and we boarded the 2:15 ferry back to Tortola.
The book said it’s a rainforest island, and it definitely rained a lot. We awoke as the boat was pulling up at the dock – the island looked very lush and green. Well, what we could see through the clouds and mist. We were still adamant about not doing the shore excursions offered by the ship. It was Christmas, so weren’t sure what our options would be. Once off the boat, we found a cab driver and arranged for him to take us to Trafalgar Falls and do a bit of sightseeing – a three hour tour. Peter (driver) tackled the very hilly but well maintained roads and we were the first ones to reach the falls. After a ten minute hike through the lushest green forest I’ve even seen, we reached the falls. We even hiked down to the base of the falls, but it was so wet I was afraid to have the camera out for too long. When we returned to the trail entrance, there were busloads of folks from the ship – all arranging to rent umbrellas or using garbage bags to shield them from the rain. Quite a sight 🙂
Since Peter dropped us back at the boat, we decided to have lunch in the dining room, take a shower to wash the rainforest off us, and then head back ashore to find internet and artwork. We found Cable & Wireless, and had a short wait since many of the crew were there and there were only 8 computers. We also called home to check voicemail – no messages so boys must be fine. We bought some pretty oil paintings of scenes from Dominica – one ocean/hut scene, one waterfall scene, and two “island marketplace” scenes. Bargaining successful! Couldn’t find anywhere with calamine lotion or mosquito repellent though (must have gotten bit during the hiking in Virgin Gorda – several big nasty spots).
We were intent on getting sun today, but had to find some calamine lotion first. We got off the ship around 8:30 and got in a cab/van with some other people from the ship. Good golly the cab driver stunk – so bad that we got out as soon as we possibly could. We wandered a bit looking for a familiar “pharmacy” sign. We finally just went into a store and did the “mosquito bite” pantomime. Martinique was unlike the other islands we’ve been too. It was very, very French (bakeries as well as attitudes).
We decided to take the ferry across the bay, and 30 minutes later found ourselves at Le Meredian Trois Islets. The hotel grounds were beautiful and we paid $10 to use the facilities (beach chairs/umbrellas). Were there for several hours until more Carnival folks arrived. It was an absolutely beautiful day and we had lots of good sun before boarding the ferry back to Fort du France.
Rejecting “all things Carnival” we opted for more “freelancing” and hired a cab for a private tour. The tour began by driving up the “Gold Coast” – the Caribbean side of the island with pristine beaches with turquoise water and palm trees. I was fascinated by the mahogany boats – painted with bright colors and handmade on the island. Passed several gorgeous scenes before feeling comfortable enough to tell Livingston to pull over for a photo opportunity.
We drove through several northern towns before heading to Cherry Tree Hill – a high point between the Caribbean and Atlantic coasts – quite a view of the Atlantic side from there and it might as well be another island. Crashing waves of dark blue water – lots of windswept trees – breathtaking. We continued down the Atlantic coast through Bathsheba, and Martin’s Bay 🙂 – then drove up to St. James church (wow what a view) before crisscrossing back to the Caribbean side past Gun Hill (which had a great view of Bridgetown and the ships).
There is no pier in St. Kitts, so we anchored in the harbor and used tenders (aka life boats) to go ashore. The tendering process was unorganized but we were ashore by 11:30. We got a cab and asked for “the closet not crowded beach”. We wound up at either Friar’s Bay or South Frigate Bay (we will never know). There was one small hotel, and a few huts selling food and drink. Perfect atmosphere for our last day.
Debarkation was slow and we were finally called to leave around 11am. We retrieved our luggage (phew) and got a cab to the Hilton (points). Check-in is at 3, so we got on the list for early check-in. Our room was on the fifth floor of the main tower – had a great view of the ocean and Condado.
The Hilton was recently renovated and awesome! There are three main pools – several waterfalls between them and a swim-up bar that is always shaded. There is a huge grove of palm trees, great for shade or lounging in a hammock (we did neither of these things). The ocean was pretty rough, but there is a breakwater which creates a swimming lagoon. Our spot was past the pool and the beach, out on a jetty by the fish feeding pier (extends out over the reef – throw a stale dinner roll to create a frenzy). The hotel is right near a really cool fort, which isn’t really open for exploring but we snuck in 🙂
We went into Old San Juan twice – but the traffic was so bad it became a pain. We had an excellent dinner at Amadeau (on San Sebastian street) and yummy tapas (appetizers) at El Convento hotel. We wandered a while – very interesting and colorful architecture. We had New Year’s Eve dinner at Martino’s – which is on the top floor or a hotel in Condado by the Marriott – surf n turf – YUM!
Our return trip was the perfect end to the vacation – we volunteered because the flight was oversold, got flight vouchers, were put on a direct flight on American, got frequent flyer upgrades, and arrived in Chicago 10 minutes before our original flight.