One of the key pieces of advice we received about how to make peace with a longer, colder winter (than what we’d come to expect in Southern California), was to schedule a trip to some place warm during the month of February. Last year, as crazy as it may sound, we were so excited by these funny things folks call seasons that we actually went to the Catskills in search of snow. This year we felt a little different. And so we are so glad that we followed that advice and booked a 7-day cruise to the Southern Caribbean. With Ashley’s parents, we were to board the Celebrity Summit in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and sail to St. Maarten, Dominica, Grenada, Tobago, and Barbados over the last week of February.
We had our reservations about cruising: though both of us have enjoyed taking a cruise previously, our preferences for a daily itinerary don’t perfectly correspond with what is generally possible on a cruise. By that I mean that we place a large focus on regional food and we prefer to spend a more concentrated amount of time at each destination. We also tend to dedicate a lot of time to researching our destinations, which can be compatible with a cruise but which is antithetical to why most people seem to enjoy cruising (i.e., no planning required).
However, what we discovered was that we could really do a lot on each island with our pre-planning, and that we could treat the ship more like a floating hotel—particularly with a port of call for all days but one—so that we spent every in-port hour off the ship. We tended to skip the on-board entertainment, but we relished having the opportunity to share a dinner table each night with the Muirs despite the fact that we often spent the days doing things on our own. And this all would have cost us so much more had we tried to put together such an itinerary on our own (though our cruise fare was a generous gift from Ashley’s parents). The rate for the 7-day cruise (6 nights lodging and all of your meals) was $599/person plus about $70/person in gratuities. And we ended up getting almost $330 in shipboard credit due to a decrease in fuel costs and as a promo from CruCon Cruise Outlet (with whom we booked the tickets). So depending on how much one spends off the boat, this can really be an affordable way to travel.
San Juan, Puerto Rico
We left New York early Friday morning. Really early. We had a 6 a.m. flight, which meant leaving the apartment around 4 a.m. It was in the teens and windy when we left our apartment. Not wanting to carry any large coats, we looked pretty funny with our socks/sandals/layered ensembles, frantically dashing into a taxi. About 4 hours later we were in a different taxi (having flung the socks and hoodies into our luggage) heading to The Gallery Inn—where we would stay for one night. Ashley had found the hotel’s listing in Fodor’s and had gotten them to let us break their two-night minimum rule.
The hotel is a maze of rooms and courtyards, is filled with colorful birds, and offers great views of the Atlantic (and the Old Town) from its various decks. It’s also richly decorated, with lots of paintings (many featuring the proprietor). Our room wasn’t quite ready, so we dropped our bags and went out in search of lunch. One of the classic Puerto Rican dishes is something called mofongo, and both Fodor’s and Lonely Planet suggested we try it at El Jibarito. Ashley tried the Camarones al ajillo (shrimp with garlic sauce) and had the plantain mofongo as her side; I ordered carnitas with a yucca mofongo. Essentially, mofongo is sort of a mashed pile of fried green plantains or fried yucca, which is then seasoned with garlic, olive oil, and bits of pork—sort of the equivalent of French Fries as sides go. The best parts were the bits with the garlic sauce (the same sauce used with Ashley’s shrimp). Otherwise, the meal was good, but not truly memorable. We each had a bottle of the local lager, Medalla Light. Believe it or not, we actually found ourselves getting cold from the air conditioning, so we were happy to get back outside.
Old San Juan is a well-preserved, colonial city with colorful facades and atmospheric streets of cobblestone. Most of its buildings date from the 17th and 18th centuries, when Spain possessed the city. We spent some time ambling about, walking along the waterfront and admiring the peculiarities of the gates and all of the buildings contained within them before making our way over to El Morro—the fort that sits at southern edge of San Juan (one of the two major forts in the old city). I was intrigued by the shaved ice vendor we passed on our way. He was truly shaving ice; after we placed an order, he took a cutting device to a huge rectangle of ice and scraped off a glassful before pouring the coconut and passion fruit juices. Yummy!
The walk out to the fort was one of the best parts of our visit to El Morro. San Juan’s promontory is particularly windy, and many families were taking advantage and flying kites over the huge expanse of lawn leading up to and surrounding the fort’s walls. After pointing out our favorites, we went on our way to the entrance, paid the fee, and began our self-guided tour. The visitor’s guide highlights the major points of interest and taught us about the city as well as about the fort. We walked the perimeter walls, admiring the views of the Atlantic and of the bay, and noted the interesting architectural details of the fort. We made concentric circles down through the three levels of El Morro, learning its uses from the 16th to the 20th century. As we left , we stuck to the coast, along the city walls that once encircled all of Old San Juan, looking down the coast over a cemetery and some low-income housing that sits between the ocean and the city walls—the views are colorful and dramatic—before coming again to our hotel. The hotel had half-priced drinks and complementary cheese during an evening happy hour, so we took a break to enjoy the ambience. We noted with some amusement that we may have been the only couple under 50 at the hotel (at least without a parent)!
Before long, we set out for dinner. We were interested in several restaurants on South Fortaleza (SoFo); an Indian fusion spot (Tantra), an Asian fusion spot (Dragonfly), and a seafood restaurant (I can’t recall which one) had caught our attention. Traditional Puerto Rican food is really a fusion of Caribbean, African, and Spanish food, so the fusion restaurants which were so prevalent seem like the next step in a long tradition. We dined on the patio at Dragonfly, which we chose it over Tantra for its patio (we wanted to eat outside at every opportunity) and really enjoyed the menu’s mix of Caribbean and Asian flavors.
The following day we had the continental breakfast included with our room (which we enjoyed in the courtyard), before heading to the Bacardi Rum Factory across the bay. To get there, we went to Pier 2, paid $0.50 each for the ferry, and $3.00 each for a shared van to the site. A tour is free, and each person gets two drink tickets while waiting for the tour to begin. Ashley tried the mojito, followed by pineapple juice and coconut rum; I sampled shots of their Bacardi Select and Bacardi 8 year (pretty equivalent I thought, despite the large difference in price). When it’s time for your tour to begin, you board this little tram and they drive you at about a 1 mph clip the 50 yards to the factory entrance. The tour lasts about 45 minutes and gives a nice overview of the history of the largest rum producer in the world, from its start in Cuba to its role in the inception of drinks like the Cuba Libre and the Mojito. There was a fun opportunity to make video messages at the end and, of course, a gift shop. And the ride to the gift shop is, thankfully, a little faster than the one to the factory. Our trip back to Old San Juan took a lot longer than the one there (just due to timing of the ferries, etc.), but we spent the time talking with a nice couple from Chicago.
It was almost 3 p.m. when we got back to town; we were far overdue for lunch. We had a singular spot in mind: La Bombonera. Ashley had read about the spot on Ed Levine’s blog, Serious Eats, a few weeks before we left and could just tell me that they had something with ham and cheese and egg and powdered sugar that looked a bit like a Monte Cristo and that she had to try. To top it off, the place had been around since the turn of the century and held the promise of excellent atmosphere and some great cups of coffee (made with a relic of a machine). Ashley ordered La Combinacion (which seemed to have the requisite elements) and I tried the Cuban sandwich. Both were excellent! But no powdered sugar. Luckily, the girl at the next booth had something with powdered sugar, which we learned was called the Pan de Mallorca. Yes, please! It was basically a pastry, sliced into two halves, which were buttered and then toasted in a press before being doused with powdered sugar—pretty wonderful. We vowed that we would return to see if we could combine the Pan de Mallora with La Combinacion.
One can begin boarding the ship as early as noon, and we knew that the Muirs were probably already on board, so we returned to the hotel to gather our things and took a cab to the Pam Am Terminal across the bay. There were no crowds when we arrived, so we quickly passed through security and were on board in no time.
We arrived just in time for a safety drill, so we ran upstairs with our life vests and joined our fellow passengers for some announcements before returning to our cabin to await the delivery of our luggage. We had a very nice, inside cabin with a great layout—it really felt ample in its space. We had no idea what cabin the Muirs were in—forgot to check that little detail—so we were happy when they found us, instead, and we all made plans to see each other in the dining room that night. We had a wonderful first night aboard—the food was really delicious (truth be told, I was figuring that quantity would mean a sacrifice in quality, but I was really impressed throughout the cruise), and Ashley and I got in some merengue dancing as we sailed out of San Juan.
Sint Maarten/Saint Martin
St. Philipsburg, Sint Maarten was our first port of call. In other words, we were on the Dutch side: the island is divided—roughly in half—between the Netherlands and France. Ashley and I managed to wake up at a decent time and watched the boat cruise past the shore and into port as we munched on smoked salmon, and made-to-order omelets (and sampled the sautéed bananas, the pastries, and few other things at the large breakfast buffet). The island looked lovely with its arid mountain peaks and deep turquoise waters. We made sure to be some of the first off the boat and walked past the excursion coordinators to where the rental cars were on offer. As soon as we were in earshot of the row of stands, the vendors were calling out to get our attention: “Meester!” “Shop around! Shop around!” We did. We went from agency to agency asking for a price. They ranged from $30-45, though all the taxes and insurance added an additional $25 to any price. We chose the best price and we were off!
Sadly, although I sometimes think my iPhone can do anything, Google maps and my iPhone did not have enough detail to give us driving directions, and we’d decided not to tote our Garmin along on this trip. I was concerned, but Ashley was convinced that she could navigate us the old-fashioned paper way. Despite our antiquated tools, we somehow navigated to the (only) main road that led around the island. We found ourselves at Simpson Beach about 15 minutes later. This beach is unique, not for its warm beautiful blue water (which it had), but for its proximity to the airport—it sits directly adjacent to the runway. Mindful of the warnings that one visits the beach at his or own risk (of injury or even death), Ashley and I joined the other onlookers and watched several planes land and take off, passing just over our heads. Though we didn’t have the thrill of a 747 taking off, it was fun to feel the blasts of air and see the planes so close. The first one’s pass-over, in particular, felt right out of North by Northwest!
Our next stop was Baie Longue, on the French side of Saint Martin, on a patch of land called Terres Basses, at which we detoured briefly for a stroll. Though it appeared quite lovely, we were curious about what other options lay in store so we moved on to Baie Rouge, which I noticed had some stands selling fish sandwiches and other lunch items. Though good snorkeling was said to be available just off the right side of the beach, the wind had kicked up some strong waves and the prospect seemed unlikely (indeed, the visibility was pretty low). We floated, swam, and warmed up in the sun before packing up again.
Ashley had read about the colorful barbeque shacks, called Lolos, located along Grand Case beach in one of our books—and she was really excited to check them out. So for lunch, we headed to Grand Case (an area known for its French-influenced cuisine). We weren’t quite sure where the lolos were, and though the beach was lined with lovely French (and some Italian restaurants) with seaside views, we didn’t see any sign of the eateries we sought. Just when I was ready to start asking people for some directions, we both caught the sweet smell of barbeque. We continued on down the beach and shortly thereafter arrived at a series of brightly colored stands, each filled with wooden picnic benches. Long, narrow steel barrels had been cut in half and were now being used to barbeque chicken, pork ribs, fish, lobster, conch sausages, and stuffed crabs on the half shell. The place we chose, Talk of the Town, served food on “island time,” giving us plenty of time to enjoy some beers and rum punch. I had the conch sausage—which tasted like gumbo wrapped in sausage—and ribs with a Johnny cake, while Ashley had the chicken and some fried plantains. The food was very good, but the atmosphere was especially awesome and we really enjoyed the lunch. The beach just beyond was also one of the calmest we came across on the island and, in retrospect, we maybe should have set up camp here for even longer.
After lunch, we continued our tour of the French side of the island and made our way to Orient beach, the most popular/written about beach of them all. We parked and made our way out to the blustery coast. Looking down to the south end, we thought there appeared to be calmer waters. We put on our long sleeve, sun-blocking shirts and began walking down. We passed row upon row of bars offering drinks, chairs, and umbrellas (for increasingly less money) until we approached the far end, where we found the nudists were enjoying the sun. Though it looked like they had the best stretch of beach, we felt our complete blockage outfits were just too in contradiction to their complete exposure outfits. We considered perching at a beach bar, but between the crowds on the chairs, the high winds, and the choppy waves, the beach just wasn’t as appealing to us as was doing more exploring. After one more stop for some swimming—at a beach called Le Galion, we headed back toward St. Philipsburg. We drove through the main shopping area (Front Street), before returning our car without any hassle, and re-boarding the ship.
A dip in the Jacuzzi, the discovery of the all-you-can eat Sushi bar, and a great meal with the Muirs completed the first full day of exploring. One odd addition to the night: the woman at the table next to us collapsed; I attended to her while we waited for the ship’s medical staff to arrive.
Dominica was one of the islands we were most excited to visit. It seemed to offer an abundance of activities and a variety of landscapes: excellent black- and white-sand coastline, plentiful marine life, rainforest, sulfur springs, waterfalls, and a river for every day of the year. With so much to enjoy there, we were really torn as to how best spend our time. We got off the boat as soon as we could and walked toward Roseau town, admiring the rainbow arching over the colorful walls of the buildings and over the steep green mountains beyond. Of course, with rainbows comes rain, and when it started pouring I quickly found cover to discuss costs for our day’s itinerary with some taxi drivers while Ashley ran back up the gangway to grab umbrellas. Having negotiated for a taxi driver to take us to Trafalgar falls and to Champagne reef for the day, we walked a short distance to a very nice van and headed out of town. As we came to the top of a hill and heard music blasting, we looked to our left and saw a mass of people dancing (jumping, really) in the street. Our driver explained that today was “Jump-up Day,” the first day of carnival—when people get up at 4 a.m., drink and dance until 9 or 10 a.m., then go home to nap. At around 4 in the afternoon, the whole thing picks up again and builds well into the night.
We drove on, via roads that were steep and windy, and our driver made efforts to avoid the mammoth potholes along the way. We stopped at a roadside stand where our driver’s sister, funny enough, sold us a local beer (Kubuli) for the road. Ashley and I shared this tasty brew on the way to the falls.
On our way to buy our passes, a guide approached us and suggested that we hire him to take us past the viewing platform. We had read that this was really more optional than the guides would like you to know, so we politely declined. The rain had stopped and we sped past the various groups who had come on minibuses. It was an easy 5-10 min walk to the viewing platform, where everyone had gathered. The first waterfall one sees, “papa falls,” is quite impressive; it pours hundreds of feet out of the jungle down to the pools below. It was striking enough, in fact, that Ashley didn’t at first see “mama falls.” It is slightly less tall and a bit wider than papa. It was here that most visitors turned around, but Ashley and I traveled further and left the crowd. The path, which is described as treacherous and slippery, was only slightly more challenging than the first part and we easily made our way. We had heard that there were warm pools (fed by hot springs) in addition to the cold ones, but it was not obvious where. We started hiking back when I saw an unusual amount of mist over one of the streams feeding into the river. We investigated further and noted the golden stained rocks from the sulpher of the volcanic water. We happily got into our bathing suits and submerged ourselves in the 98 degree water. It felt heavenly. Amazed to be totally alone, we watched the rain fall on the giant leaves around us and positioned ourselves such that the hot water from the stream feeding the pool splashed down over our shoulders. We were reluctant to leave but eventually an older German couple spotted our hideout which helped prompt our departure—we figured it was their turn to have the spot to themselves.
When we came back to the lot, our driver was waiting to take us on to Champagne Reef, though he suggested we see the nearby sulfur springs first (for an additional $10). The boiling, bubbling well was interesting (and so, so smelly), but it was probably a stop we could’ve skipped.
Champagne Reef is so named because hot air, released from volcanic vents, creates streams of bubbles in the water, and the effect is that the water somewhat resembles a glass of champagne. I wouldn’t suggest the reef as a spot for diving, but the snorkeling was fun. There’s a boardwalk that’s been built to take you out closer to the water, but the beach is quite rocky and not ideal for those just wanting to sun. We had a great time snorkeling (finding the vents of hot air as well as some shimmering underwater hot springs, following cute box-fish), even with some light, intermittent rain showers.
We had scheduled for our driver to meet us a couple of hours later; he drove us back to town—passing through the Botanical gardens to show us his cricket field and a bus that had been crushed during Hurricane David. (Sadly, the year after Dominica gained its independence from Britain, a devastating Hurricane hit the island.) We walked back to the boat, dropped off our things, and then went back into town to join the dancing—which was picking up again. We sampled some different infusions of bush rum along with some plantains, ice cream, and some more Kubuli. Curiously, the ship neglected to mention the holiday at all. We really enjoyed getting the chance to see the town during carnival, but I know all of the resultant shop and restaurant closures were disappointing to passengers who planned to spend the day in Roseau. And it seemed like quite an oversight—another example of how one can benefit from some pre-cruise planning.
We were back on the boat by 4:30 p.m. for the 5 o’clock sail-away, but our ship stayed in port until 9 that evening. We learned the exact reason during a captain’s announcement at dinner that night: 16 of our fellow passengers had been in an accident (they were on the ship’s cooking school excursion). Four had been treated and released while the others were in serious condition. I know that those 12 were then airlifted to a hospital in Miami where at least one patient was in a coma. We hope they’re all going to be alright.
With the exceptions of Sint Maarten and Dominica, the ship was in port every day from 7:30 a.m to 5 p.m., and we pushed to start each day as early as possible. We were off the boat at St. George’s and at the central market in no time. We were called in all directions by spice and fruit vendors (mostly the former)—I stopped at the first table and we ended up with about five nutmeg seeds, a bag of cloves, and a bag of cocoa balls. To prepare the chocolate (cacao) balls, one grates them over hot water, adds milk and sugar, and gets “cocoa tea.”
The vendors were still setting up for the day, so after a quick look around, we decided that we wanted to arrange for a taxi to take us to the Nutmeg plant/Spice Estate and then to Morne Rouge beach for a few hours. We ran back to the ship and called the Muirs to see if they wanted to join us. We all met at the stern, and then went on our way. After negotiating, we met our driver; Michael turned out to be a wonderful guide (a great thing, because it was a long drive). He was so friendly and clearly loves his island. He pointed everything out with pride. And I mean everything–from the most beautiful of beaches and the breadfruit trees used to make his favorite meal of Oil Down, to the island’s solid waste facility!
Our first stop was to the Dougladston Estate, just outside Gouyave. The main building is an old boucan: a building with large drying trays on rails (so that the trays can be pushed under the building if it rains or if one needs to lock the product up for security). Apparently, the trays would be used for any number of spices (except nutmeg, which is not dried in the direct sun and was kept in the rafters), but as Dougladston Estate is no longer a working spice house, they keep cacao on display. Inside, there are sorting tables, each with a guide to show you the different spices—let you smell them and tell you how they’re harvested or processed. The fresh cinnamon and the bay leaf (so different from the Persian ones we’re accustomed to) were particularly amazing!
From there, we drove a short distance back into the town of Gouyave where, along the main road, sits the operational nutmeg factory. Grenada was the foremost exporter of nutmeg (in the world) before Hurricane Ivan. After the hurricane, however, two of their three factories shut down, making them third in the world—and yet, we learned, only 17 people are employed at the factory. It made us curious to know more about how many people are involved in the growing of the trees—but we’ll just have to investigate that another time.
After lunch we drove back down the coast. We had originally planned to go to Nutmeg, a local restaurant for West Indian food, then go to Morne Rouge Beach, but the tour had taken us longer than we had anticipated. We modified our plans slightly, instead going to the nearer Grand Anse Beach and stopping at “The Green Grocer.” We had read this was a good spot for roti, and our driver Michael concurred. The Muirs all got the chicken roti, while I got fish. We grabbed some drinks and Michael drove us the additional few minuets to the beach. The sand stretched far down to our left and right; we all settled in under a tree. We sat back and opened our roti. A flat, naan-like bread served the role of a tortilla, and was wrapped around a filling of lightly-curried meat.
Before long, Al, Ashley, and I were in the water. Though I suspected there would be nothing to see, I couldn’t help but bring my mask with me. We floated for sometime, before Ashley and I decided to swim down the beach. A bit further down, a few dozen sea urchins had gathered on the sandy bottom, apparently attracted by a few dead fish. I investigated a bit, found a perfect sand dollar, and then headed back. After an hour or two, the four of us rejoined Michael for the drive back to the ship–but not before Ashley found a vendor selling raw coconuts. Its juice was cold, fresh, and delicious.
Once back in town, Ashley and I took off to spend our last hour doing a bit more exploring. We headed back to the market where we looked again at all the fruit. I ended up getting another beer as we zig-zagged through the fruit and spice stands. I should note that we never made it through the tunnel to the carenage (harbour) area St. George’s, which I imagine would hold the most interest for visitors planning to spend a full day in town.
As we headed back into the ship we stopped off at a juice stand with a good local reputation, even if it was in a very touristy location, called “Native food & fruits.” Ashley had a tasty banana and nutmeg shake, while I had the guayaba—a type of guava. This fruit was clearly distinct from guava I’ve known, but had a nice sweet/sour flavor that was also very good.
Back on the boat we finished the day with what was beginning to become our routine: sushi, jacuzzi, and a view of the sunset from the deck, before sitting down to a delicious multi-course meal with the Muirs.
We had read that Tobago would be a good choice for scuba diving, and so we had planned to arrange something in the Scarborough port. We would have been interested in booking an excursion through Celebrity in this case—for the ease of arranging transportation, and for the confidence it would give us that if the activity ran late, they would hold the boat. Of course, this happened to be the one island where Celebrity didn’t offer an excursion for divers. I had done some advanced emailing to some dive shops on Tobago, and knew there was one in Speyside, about 1.5 hours up the coast, with daily trips. They had offered to pick us up from the port for $90, but we figured we could do better straight off the boat. However, when we got off, we found we were unable to negotiate a round-trip for even that price, and in fact ended up paying more. The desperation to dive (that sometimes takes hold of me) set in strong; and so we negotiated to best deal we could, swallowed hard, and got in the car. We felt pressured for time and had a hard time enjoying the drive between the half-static radio station, our slightly unpleasant driver, the windy roads, and our concern over not knowing whether we would even make it in time to dive.
We arrived at 9:50a.m. (the first dive was set to leave at 10) and asked to be squeezed into the group who had already booked. We recognized some people from our ship and, while I discussed the situation with the owner of the shop, Ashley found that our fellow cruisers were infinitely more prepared. They had bought an $8 phone card the previous day and had called ahead to a car rental company who in turn agreed to drop off a car next to the port (thereby saving them a $25 taxi ride each way to the rental site at the airport); they had driven up to Speyside for a mere $40, plus the cost of the phone card. Ouch—that is the last time I ever want to think about those numbers.
Anyway, the good news was that Tobago Dive Experience (operating out of the Manta Lodge) did have space for us—and the other people from our boat turned out to be great dive mates! Of course, the shop was running late, so an hour later we hopped into the back of the truck and drove to the dock with just enough time for one dive. The captain felt it best to dive at Japanese Gardens, just off of Little Tobago. After strapping on our gear and doing the necessary safety checks, we back-flipped off the boat into the comfortable, turquoise water. We began our descent and looked around as sponges and sea whips became visible on the floor below. We bottomed-out at 90 feet and let the current carry us alongside the reef, before gradually ascending to where the current whisked us between two pillars of rock—the “kamikaze cut.” We continued to enjoy the massive sponges and soft corals and allowed the current to carry us along. Ashley remarked that the colors were some of the most stunning she’d seen, but I know she was really hoping we might see some of the massive manta rays that frequent the area—or at least a small shark. No such luck. The two of us still had about 1000 lbs of air pressure, but we’d been down about 40 minutes when the dive master shot a marker up and the boat came to pick us up. It was a great dive, and although we wished we could stay longer, we were concerned that a second dive would make us late. Back at the Manta Lodge, we enjoyed a beer by the pool before heading back to town.
On the way back, having made it to our destination and knowing that we would make it back to the ship in time, we could much better enjoy the coastal trip and steep slopes that abutted the water. Tobago is a beautiful island with plenty of rugged coastline; one can see why Disney chose to film their Swiss Family Robinson here. Apparently, the island was also the basis for Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
Back at the boat, we dropped off our stuff, and then set out again. We looked around at the shops closest to the ship terminal, which seemed a bit seedy, before proceeding to the old downtown. Our first stop was Ciao Cafe, where Ashley tried some very good ice cream and I had a beer.
Taking our treats to go, we headed for Forro’s. Forro is the Anglican archdeacon’s wife who sells preserves and chutneys from her home in the rectory. We walked into the garden and looked for some sort of signage. We didn’t see anything obvious, so we asked the gardener who informed us, “Forro is asleep.” We weren’t about to wake Forro, so we thanked him and left. But before we got back onto the sidewalk, the gardener signaled to us; Forro was peaking out between the shutters upstairs, asking for us to come back and she’d be right down. We happily obliged and a few minutes later she invited us into her home where we browsed through various chutneys and jams. We selected a few, and after some sweet talk and a round of hugs we thanked her and went on to the town.
After a bit more wandering—during which we saw a chicken jump five feet in the air to attack the man ahead of us!—we stopped at a dried fruit vendor (who seemed to fill the role of the local candy store). She showed us the most popular items: we found that the dried fruit was seasoned with red or white sugar and spices which made for an unusual, if not entirely tasty dessert. With my last TT (the Trinidad-Tobagan dollar), I bought one more local treat: sesame balls with caramelized sugar. Interestingly, these ones improved with every bite, and by the time I finished them, I actually liked them!
That evening, after the usual requisite time spent at the jacuzzi and watching the sun set, the Muirs treated us to dinner at the Normandie, the Summit’s specialty restaurant. The food was really quite good for every meal, but the Normandie took the inventiveness and presentation up another notch—case in point, Ashley’s mushroom cappuchino with a sorrel sorbet (a foam capped soup with a savory sorbet). Each dish was a hit.
For Barbados, we were hoping to find an activity that would help us to spend more daytime hours with the Muirs. We also had a large shipboard credit to use. So when we saw the “Five Star Catamaran” excursion option—on which we would swim with turtles, then hang out at the beach or snorkel—we thought we’d found the perfect thing, and the four of us signed ourselves up. Once in Bridgetown, we took the ship’s shuttle to the terminal, then made our way to a bus that took us from there to the catamaran. It wasn’t quite as “Five Star” as they’d promised (Hey—what happened to that champagne breakfast!?), but it still felt nice to get off the boat onto, well, a different boat. A sailboat, that is.
We settled down near the bow and enjoyed some juice. Shortly thereafter we motored out of the port; the crew raised the sail and we traveled up the Western coast of Barbados. The island looked much different than the others we’d been visiting; non-volcanic, Barbados is generally low-lying. It also appeared much more developed—or at the least, the coastline we saw was far more concentrated with hotels and private residences.
We dropped anchor at a beach about 30 minutes down the coast—along with several other boats. After a short briefing, which included instruction not to touch the turtles and to leave the fins behind, we jumped into the water and looked around for the turtles. Well, actually, they also first made us each wear these funny little inflatable vests with a ridiculous-looking through-the-legs strap; mine, of course was too short.
Once in, we saw that a person from the boat was baiting the water with some fish. And soon enough, a three-foot turtle swam up to investigate. Understandably, the large crowd that had jumped into the water went crazy—much to my chagrin. It was fun watching the turtle, but seeing people from our boat and from others frantically kicking (with fins, no less) and diving down to touch the turtle’s shell distracted from the fun of seeing a wild turtle. I swam away from the crowd and eventually chanced upon a small group with a larger turtle. I followed him for a time, while Ashley had swum off and found an eel to investigate. After we had all had had our fill, we piled back onto the boat and motored for another 20 minutes down the coast. As we cruised along, the captain pointed out the homes of the rich-and-famous and the ultra-expensive hotels/wedding venues for the likes of Tiger Woods.
We had a simple lunch of fried flying fish and chicken then stopped at another beach with some snorkeling nearby. I always find snorkeling to be irresistible, so only seconds after I dropped off our stuff on the beach where the Muirs were sitting, Ashley and I went out to check out the reef. Sadly, this reef had been all but destroyed, but I still managed to find some small creatures that were interesting. After half an hour or so, Ashley headed into shore, while I couldn’t resist some more investigatig. Just when I was about to head in myself, I saw three creatures down near the sand with undulating colors and large eyes; they seemed to be watching my every move. I dove down to try to get closer to the squid, but they quickly jetted away, turning white and flashing brown spots. I crept closer on the surface and tried to signal Ashley (who, like me, loves cephalopods) to come back in, but I couldn’t get her attention. After another 20 minutes or so, we had to head back onto the boat. Actually, our main complaint would be that so little time was allowed at the stop; we had hoped we could take a stroll down the coast or just enjoy the sand a bit, to no avail.
As we sailed back to Bridgetown, Ashley and I sat up in the front, soaking up some sun (filtering it, rather, through our 50+ spf shirts), eating chocolate and rum cake, and making multiple attempts at finding the optimum combination of rum and pineapple juice at the catamaran’s open bar.
When we got back to the port we decided to take a $5 cab ride into town (there was a $2pp shuttle that ran throughout the day, but we felt we had too little time to wait) to see what Bridgetown’s downtown is like. Our understanding is that there is a lot to see and do in Barbados, and that the island retains a lot of the English tradition from its days as an English colony—in fact there was a huge cricket match going on that day. However, we had such little time to look around that we could only get a glimpse of the familiar rows of jewelry and watch shops along Broad Street and take a quick look at Heroes’ Square and the Carenage before we felt it best to walk back along the shore to the cruise terminal. We sampled some other rum cake slices and proceeded to the gangway.
By now, you probably have a good idea of what we did once we were back on board. But this time we did curtail our sunset watching a bit to catch the second half of the show and see Karen Grainger (also known as “Canada’s Foremost Female Impressionist Entertainer!”). We had seen her one other night and she definitely gave a pretty stunning performance. Afterward, the four of us made our way to the dining room for a formal-night dinner. This was the night of the famous (infamous?) baked-Alaska parade—one of those most cheesy of cruise-ship traditions that shows no signs of fading. The international cast of waiters and bussers parade about the floor carrying flaming baked Alaskas before the dessert course. It’s quite a spectacle!
Our last day on the cruise was spent at sea. Though we had specifically chosen the cruise for its great destinations, I was looking forward to the sea day. We had been doing some non-stop exploring and I was looking forward to some true relaxation. We spent the day on the upper deck, having slept in too long to get a pool side lounge chair. Our day from then on was spent reading, playing ping-pong, overheating, jumping in the pool (repeat), enjoying some poolside entertainment, sharing some drinks, and watching the sea as it appeared to roll by. A bucket of beer helped save on the cost of alcohol, but not as much as the Champagne we brought in at the start of the trip–which we enjoyed before dinner. The day flew by, and before we knew it we had to pack and set our bags outside our door. The Muirs stopped in and we all said goodbye and wished each other safe travels, as they had a much earlier debarkation time than did we.
Back in Old San Juan
While we were packing our bags, we one of the “shoportunities” featured on the cabin television was a Venetian jewelry store in Old San Juan that would store passengers’ bags for free. We couldn’t figure out exactly where the shop was, so the taxi dropped us off at the edge of the city and we wandered about, dragging our bags, until we found it. We made an obligatory turn around the store inspecting their average looking jewelry before heading down to the the bay for a cup of coffee at Café Cola’o, at Pier 2. Though Puerto Rico grows some excellent coffee, its high cost means that most of it is blended with lower grade beans. But Café Cola’o was reputed to have 100% Puerto Rican coffee, so Ashley and I each got a drink. The setting could have been more picturesque (we were best positioned to watch tourists return their rented Segways), but it felt great to be sitting outside in February, enjoying the shade and the views of the water, and the coffee was tops. Plus, we used the time to check into our flight using my iphone!
Back in town, while window shopping, Ashley was tempted by a panama hat from Olé, a slick hat store–but ultimately was concerned that she might not wear it enough to justify its cost. We did find a Coach store with some amazing deals, but decided to get lunch before making any rash purchases. We knew where our lunch would be coming from well in advance of the day. Both of us had in mind the Pan de Mallorca at La Bombonera. We returned again, drank more coffee, and had some delicious savory sandwiches (as well as a plain one with butter) that really hit the spot. After lunch, we mysteriously ended up back inside the Coach store. We took it as a sign and bought Ashley a great bag. Not wanting to be left out, I found my way into the Polo store and did some shopping for me, too.
Afterward, we decided to walk out to El Morro again. Approaching its huge expanse of lawn, we couldn’t help but investigate the kites. We found one featuring Nemo (of Pixar fame) selling for $4 which, let’s face it, is a steal when you consider the endless hours of potential kite flying it carries with it. We joined hundreds of (other) kids and took turns working our kite up to its maximum height. It was great! In due time, we packed Nemo up, returned to the jewelry store, and collected our bags.
We weren’t quite ready to go to the airport, so we headed downtown to find a restaurant for dinner. Eating outside was a must, so we choose one of the fusion spots off Calle Fortaleza and ordered a big pitcher of Sangria. We nursed it and some good-but-not-special appetizers along for a couple of hours, and reveled in the sheer enjoyment of sitting outside in February. At the last possible moment, we easily–if reluctantly–hailed a cab, and became homeward bound.