It felt awfully good leaving icy New York for the warm Caribbean. Ashley and I have found that a winter escape from the city is practically mandatory for surviving. We explored a bunch of different options before settling on a cruise. For some reason, we’re not the only East-coasters who seem to favor a warm weather vacation around February, and the prices where we were looking proved it. Beyond cost, there was the fact that Ashley is pregnant to consider: malaria zones were a no-no (many of the tropical places which would be hot in February were ruled out by this factor) and we didn’t want to take too many risks with food-borne illness in developing countries. A cruise seemed the perfect solution: they make the Caribbean affordable, and–as we’d be meeting up with Ashley’s parents for the trip–it makes for a nice way to travel with family.We could split up during the day and always know we’d be together for sunsets and dinners in the evenings. We had all taken a similar trip (different itinerary on the same boat, the Celebrity Summit) two years ago. This time, we would sail from Puerto Rico to St. Thomas, St. Maarten, St. Lucia, Antigua, and Barbados.
As luck would have it, though they were coming from California, we flew in just a few minutes apart from each other. After dropping off our stuff on the boat, we all decided that our first order of business was to get food–and so we all headed into Old San Juan.
La Bombonera was a favorite stop on our last visit. We all had the Pan de Mallorca: a sandwich of ham and cheese on a buttered pastry with powdered sugar with some papaya milkshakes before a little shopping and strolling among the colorful buildings of Old San Juan.
I loved the blue stones that line many of the streets in Old San Juan.
We sailed at 8pm that first night, passing by El Morro–the impressive fort that juts out from San Juan–just as the four of us sat down to dinner. These two kids on the dance floor out shown all the other cruisers by far.
Ashley had read about two good beach options on St. Thomas: Coki Beach and Magens Bay. We decided to head for Coki, in spite of the risk that nearby Coral World could make the beach crowded (based on the possibility of better snorkeling).
The beach was by no means secluded, but we found the crowd to be small and the setting was gorgeous! And the snorkeling, while not outstanding, wasn’t bad. There’s nothing like that first day of a tropical beach vacation, when you first feel the sand and see the turquoise water. We rented two chairs and umbrella and immediately met Pearl–a waitress who said “anything you need, you’ve got me.” My thought: she says we’ve got Pearl, but in fact Pearl has us.
As it turned out, Pearl did bring me a beer, but we most enjoyed the fruit smoothies being peddled from the bar down the beach. Ashley had hers virgin, but mine came with a hefty dousing of rum as well as an extra shot on the side. We slathered on the sunscreen, tried to wear protective clothes, but it turned out not to be enough and we got slightly burned any way.
Our curiosity about the other beach, rumored to be one of the most postcard-perfect on the island, got the best of us and we caught another ride. But first I couldn’t pass up the sight of barbecue. I asked what was cooking and the man at the grill replied “shellfish.” I expected shrimp or something of the like, but was shocked when what arrived was in fact a mild white fish with a hard outer skin–much like a shell.
There appeared to be a lot of great, fresh options at the beach-side bars.
When we arrived at Magens Bay, the scene was much different. It’s the only beach with an entry fee ($4 pp/$1 per vehicle) and so it also had a few more facilities surrounded a large parking lot at the entrance. We walked out and the sand just past the entrance was packed! We could tell that many of the beach-goers were from cruises docked in port by the names on their towels.
The book hadn’t lied, though. The crescent beach was beautiful. We were able to walk a ways down and find less crowded sands and a picnic table in the shade to sit at. I brought some more food (chicken fingers) from a beach-side bar and we watched sea birds dive dramatically into the water, hoping for a catch.
Though Magens was the more scenic of the two bays, we were really happy we had chosen to spend our day at Coki. At Coki, there actually was some good snorkeling to be found, the water seemed just a tad clearer, and there would have been no shellfish at this beach.
One of the odd hallmarks of the tourist trade in St. Thomas is that many cabs are actually buses with open-air bench seating in the back. We were lucky to be the last two on one (otherwise you might have to wait a while until the driver feels the bus is full enough to leave–and they seat up to sixteen people) when we caught a ride back to town. The views as we returned were gorgeous–though it’s always a mix of fascinating and alarming to see the cruise ships dominating the small harbors.
Once back on board, we joined the Muirs for some drinks on deck and chose our imaginary yacht from the ones in the bay below.
The first night was a formal night, and we had a good laugh at how Ashley’s baby-bump had seemingly doubled in size already (less about the baby and more about all of the indulging we were already doing thanks to all-you-can-eat cruising).
The next morning, in St. Maarten, we headed straight for the rental car kiosks to the right of the cruise terminal. Having gone through the fun of negotiating rates on our last visit, we walked right up to a familiar window and offered $40. It was accepted and off we went!
There was some traffic heading north the West coast of the island, so we cut across to the East and looped around past Baie Orientale and Grand Case before deciding on Friar’s Bay beach. We recalled from last time that the popular Orientale was incredibly windy–which was again true. The small town of Grand Case was a favorite from our last visit; it’s definitely worth checking out for the lolos (barbecue stands) that set up at lunchtime. But we wanted to try a new spot this time, and were really happy with Friar’s Bay.
We again rented two chairs and an umbrella from one of the restaurants (Kali’s Beach Bar) and settled in with a small crowd of people who appeared to have long-term rentals or who had skippered in from sailboats anchored in the bay.
Ashley had to stop herself from having a third mint cooler (like a virgin mojito but with extra mint and lime); they were so, so good. I sampled some of the housemade, infused rum from the bar. And for lunch, we walked a few steps from our chairs to one of the restaurant’s colorful picnic tables: Ashley had a fish sandwich and I tried the ribs. Both seems to be fairly standard options around the island. I liked that my ribs came drizzled with honey.
With what we thought would be ample time to get back to the ship, we started driving into town. What we didn’t anticipate was that we would accidentally drive along Front street (the main shopping street in town) and get completely stuck in traffic. As we started watching the clock tick away minutes, we tried not to panic at the same time as we started discussing how fast either of us could run if needed. It was not pleasant and we vowed not to cut it quite so close the next day.
…lest we watch our ship sail away from the dock.
(Luckily, this is not our boat; we made it back on ours about 30 minutes prior to departure.)
Our next stop was Antigua! Ashley’s parents joined us on this day, and the four of us shared a taxi to Dickenson Bay. I was a little dismayed when the taxi driver suggested he take us to a further beach because “Dickenson doesn’t have any services.” It’s never a nice feeling when someone is dishonest. Luckily, Ashley had done her research and was right to think it wasn’t true.
Much of the beach was occupied by a hotel with lounge chairs reserved for cruise passengers who had booked an excursion to the beach (at a price maybe four times what we had each paid to independently travel to and rent chairs at the same spot), but we chose a restaurant from which to rent four loungers and an umbrella. While beautiful, because this particular beach had so much activity from cruise passengers, as well as jet ski rentals and a Sandals resort at its far end, it wasn’t our top pick from the trip. I would be curious to learn of other beaches people recommend for our next visit to this island.
Ashley loves fresh coconut juice, and caught the man as he passed by: first he opens the fruit, and on his return trip down the sand–after you’ve finished your drink–he cracks it further to help you get at the white meat inside.
The Muirs left the beach a little earlier than we did to check out town. We followed an hour or so later and, after a very quick tour of the streets around the harbor, found ourselves at Hemingways Cafe for a light lunch.
It’s tempting to hop right back on the ship for a meal–after all, it’s all included–but we do agree that it’s still nice to sample the local fare (something we wish there were more opportunity for aboard).
There’s a small shopping area centered around a courtyard, called Redcliffe Quay, that looked like a nice place to grab a bite or sample some ice cream, but otherwise the town of St. John’s doesn’t appear to be Antigua’s main sight. We soaked up as much of the warm breeze and bright colors as we could, however, before walking through Heritage Quay and back onto the ship.
We found Ashley’s parents on the fantail of the ship and brushed up on our trivia and crossword puzzling skills as seabirds circled above before sailing again into the sunset.
Ashley and I particularly enjoyed this hour each day on the cruise. Our dinner seating was at 8pm and while we couldn’t hang out in the upper deck hot tubs this time, we would usually skip the on-board entertainment in favor of watching the scenery roll by.
Next stop: the town of Castries in St. Lucia. This was the port we were most excited about. One of Ashley’s best friends has raved about stays on the island, and we’ve wanted to go ever since. Jet Blue flies direct from JFK, but prices to stay here can skyrocket in-season.
The only challenge was figuring out how to best enjoy the limited time we had. Ashley was hoping to make it to the beach of Anse Chastenet–where she’d heard there would be views of the island’s famous Pitons and good snorkeling. But when we asked the visitor’s center about taking a taxi, they estimated it would cost $130 and take 1 1/2-2 hours! They suggested we talk to a tour operator–one standing by the port exit with a sign–about a boat trip instead.
We ended up paying $40 per person to join a small dive/snorkel boat that would be heading to exactly the beach we’d wanted to visit: Anse Chastenet! It would leave in an hour, so we decided to walk into town and check out the central market.
We walked past the shipyard, where men crafted hulls…
inspected baskets made from recycled plastic and picked up a bag of green and a bag of yellow plantains to compare…
and browsed among fruit and vegetable stands before finding ourselves in a long corridor of picnic tables and lunch counters, among bags of fragrant spices and locally liqueurs.
Ashley also found a straw bag inside the covered market.
We couldn’t have made a better decision than choosing to take the boat out to the beach. It was definitely a highlight of the trip. Along with some other friendly couples, we sped along the dazzling coast toward the Pitons.
The two-man crew pointed out a few sights and reminded us that the Bachelor had filmed here not too long ago. The cast had stayed at the Jade Mountain Resort–which goes for around $1300-2600/night and uses Anse Chastenet as its beach. All of the beaches on St. Lucia are public; only the equipment (chairs, etc.) can be privatized.
One side of the beach is roped off for snorkeling–part of a marine reserve. We were able to place our things in lockers on the beach, and then head straight toward the reserve.
After finding lots of beautiful fish along the rocks (and a crab or two in the sand), I spotted an eel swimming freely near the shore! For the next 10 minutes, I floated by him and tried to get close (but not too close) in the lapping waves. I tried to follow him back out to deep water, but the eel apparently lost interest and with a few flicks of its tail it outpaced my breast stroke.
The thatched palapas and chaises were reserved for guests of Jade Mountain, so we set up under the (shifting) shade of a Palm tree before deciding we’d like to have lunch at the resort’s beach-side restaurant.
A virgin pina colada for Ashley and a rum and nutmeg punch for me.
The restaurant had all that we needed for food and drink for a day–although the lack of competition didn’t help with their prices.
And while we should be last ones to make fun of couples who take photos of each other, we couldn’t help but sneak a quick snap of these two, who all but rolled in the surf over the course of an extended photo session.
After lunch, we made a mad dash for our towels and found that the island’s beautiful black sands are scorching hot! The trick was to stay in the water.
We had picked up some of these petit mandarins when we were at the market earlier that day., They were sweet, but so small–you almost ate them one fruit at a time rather than one segment at a time like mandarins back home.
The water taxi that parked near the hotel was asking $120 for a one way trip back to Castries–far more than the $80 it cost us to go round trip.
It was hard to pull away form the beach–I could have spent another few days there, easily. But my disappointment at having to leave was at least dimmed by speeding along and drinking Piton beer with a clear view of the Pitons themselves.
Our boat detoured briefly in Marigot bay–just long enough for us to gawk at celebrities’ cliffside homes and massive boats.
And there were some small ones, too.
We made one last stop at the “lady’s shoe,” an archway perfect for swimming through. I think it was mainly a stop designed to sell you on the trip: “as a bonus you get to make an additional stop at…” but we didn’t pass up the opportunity to dive off the boat one last time.
Back on board it was business as usual: sitting on the deck to watch the sun–and the island–disappear in the horizon. It’s a lovely way to end the daylight hours.
By the way: The plantain chips we got from the market earlier that morning were wonderful. The Guacamole from the ship… not so much.
Our final island stop was Barbados, the very same island on which we’d ended our last February trip.
We joined up with the Muirs and the four of us set off in search of a good beach. Last time, we had taken a catamaran trip and snorkeled with turtles (a cruise excursion), but this time we were determined to figure it out on our own.
Our goal in Barbados was simple–a beach with chairs and a store for food. A bonus would be if they had shore snorkeling. We did our usual research on all the beaches of the island and ended up deciding to first go to Folkstone beach, at the north end of Holetown, where the Barbados marine reserve has its headquarters and where snorkeling might be good. It was quickly clear, however, that the beach left something to be desired–it was quite narrow, had lots of leaves from the overhanging branches and didn’t seem to have food or drink nearby. We decided to give it a go and started off with a snorkel. Sadly this was the worst part about the beach. Almost no fish and mostly dead or too-shallow coral.
Convinced there wasn’t much here for us we asked the nice lady at the reserve about calling us a cab for our second-choice beach, Mullins, which was 15 or so minutes up the beach. She seemed to think the idea of a cab was ridiculous–why pay for a cab when you can just hop on a bus for $1 each? And the bus come right away! It sounded easy enough, so we all walked out to the street. Seconds later, a bright green, reggae-blasting mini-bus pulled up and a man signaled us aboard. We had barely stepped on before he started moving again, so we quickly took our seats with the locals. A man took our dollars and asked us where we were headed. Then a few minutes later he signaled that this was our stop. We hopped off and had barely hit the ground before they continued their northward bee-bopping trip. It was so simple–and a real experience!
This beach was also narrow, but it had nice chairs set up by a restaurant, and the water seemed calm and inviting. We dropped of our stuff and strolled down the beach. I was excited find a small shack offering $2 Barbadian beer (as opposed to $4 at the restaurant) and started making periodical treks there.
We all enjoyed a pricey–but delicious–lunch at the restaurant overlooking the beach, before Ashley’s parents headed back to the ship. (Ashley tried the local specialty: flying fish!) We lingered one more hour or so, reluctant to leave the beach on our last day in the Southern Caribbean.
We thought about asking a cab to take us back, but the bus was so easy to take up and we figured we still had time to take the slightly slower bus. This one had a different decor from our first bus, but kept with the high-volume reggae (although I did note that they turned it way down whenever they passed by the police). School had recently let kids out, and as our journey grew extended by frequent stops–and the city started too look less familiar; I think we both were a little unsure if we had made a mistake not giving ourselves more time or taking that taxi. Fortunately, a few minutes later we were dropped of within view of the boat and we strolled back to the dock with plenty of time to spare.
The light was particularly exquisite that night. The pilot boat seemed to sense it too and jetted next to us longer than seemed usual before it veered back toward land.
That night was formal night on board which meant Aron and I were determined to take photos in front of the most awkward backdrops we could find.
We did find some good screens to pose in front of: there was a cheesy sunset and the boat, a screen of black with splashes of color all around, or a starry night sky. But the most fun was when we posed in front of the grand staircase. The photographer asked us if we wanted formal or casual. “Casual,” Ashley replied, later admitting she thought that meant we would just hold hands or perhaps stand next to each other and smile. “Maybe we’ll actually buy these photos,” I thought. But we quickly realized that casual meant casually posed. I was instructed to cross his arms and throw a jaunty look over his shoulder, while Ashley’s hands were placed just so on my back.
Some of the pictures actually turned out okay (surprising given how ridiculous our poses felt), but at $20 per shot it just seemed like robbery in the era of digital photography. We were happy enough to stick with just our cabin-mirror shot.
Speaking of ridiculous shots: everyone seems to know to start whirling their napkins in the air as baked Alaska is paraded on the final formal night. It’s one of those bizarre cruise rituals you just have to go with.
Our final day on the cruise was spent at sea, sailing from Barbados back to Puerto Rico.
It’s the only day when the boat has to worry that every passenger wants to be in the same place at once: by the pool. So if you want a spot–and especially if you want a spot in the shade–you have to get there early.
Just to the right, out of view in this photo, is a sign saying “no reserving chairs.” Sorry to have to admit it, but we ignored the rules along with the rest of the passengers and snagged a few spots together before breakfast so that the four of us could all sit together.
There is something wonderfully relaxing about the sea day. Perhaps it’s because there is really nothing you can do but relax and make trips to the buffet or bar. The ship tries to fill the day with activities, but we mostly ignored them and read our books. That said, the ice carving demonstration really was impressive.
Moonscapes on the back deck… why didn’t we spend every night up here?
That evening, we packed up our bags and left them outside our door to be picked up by a porter. We’d see them again at disembarkation.
It was raining in Puerto Rico when we got off the ship, so we decided it would be a good day to visit the rain forest. We saw the Muirs off at the airport and then continued on to a rental car agency. Thank goodness for iphones: we reserved a car while standing in line to get off the ship. Next time, we discovered, we can even pre-arrange to have a car meet us at the port!
A missed exit meant that we got to stop at Playa Luquillo beach, a popular public beach where Ashley had read about the row of food kiosks that run along the Western end. I think we were there well before the main crowd, but that didn’t stop me from getting some good, deep-fried food (we noticed that fried food is a dominant theme on the island). The beach itself looked nice, but very similar to the other northern coast beaches.
El Yunque is easily accessible from the main road and a popular stop for day-trippers not planning on doing extensive hikes. Still, as we twisted and turned into the jungle the greens got thicker and thicker and you really do get the sense of being far away
This amazing fall was right of the road.
At about half-way, we climbed the 98 steps to the top of the Yokahu lookout tower and looked across the canopy towards the beaches of the North coast.
We started down the “trail” (really a nicely grooved strip of concrete, a 30 minute walk) to La Mina falls just as a rainstorm came rushing through. At that point we were relieved the trail was so well paved (as we were just in sandals), and that we had brought along our dry bag. We tucked our shirts away and got out our underwater camera.
It had been said that one could swim at the falls, but it didn’t look too wise (or appealing) at the time we visited. It was still awesome to stand in the mist and hear the water pounding.
Of course, maybe equally awesome was this little guy–maybe only an inch long.
The hotel had held our bags for us while we were gone; our room wasn’t ready when we stopped by in the morning. But it was a nice surprise when we came back to find that we had been upgraded to a suite!
We stayed at the Marriott Renaissance–”La Concha”–which we were really happy with. It had the amenities we’ve come to be used to a Marriotts (thanks to my parents’ business travel and brand loyalty), like plush beds and a concierge lounge, but it didn’t look like a Marriott but rather more like a hip, boutique spot (the lobby in particular).
In the evening, we took advantage of our having a rental car and drove to old San Juan to walk around and check out some of the stores. We were taken by surprise by one store in particular. We posted about Olé separately here, but suffice to say it had a wonderful collection of hats, shoes, and vintage items.
For dinner, we decided to have some fusion Indian/Caribbean food at Tantra. It was recommended in nearly every guide book and we had almost gone here last time we were in town. While it didn’t compete with the Indian we have in New York, it was remarkable in that it was still very good despite the lack of sizable Indian population in San Juan.
We returned out car after dinner so that the next day could be entirely devoted to relaxing.
For breakfast the next morning, we were committed to minimal effort and went to the hotel’s restaurant. The coconut and mango pancakes looked wonderful, but were doughy and uninspired. The crab cakes with roasted tomatoes and egg were good, but left me wanting more. The view, however, was perfect–we overlooked the pool and the beach beyond.
One final breakfast, which we were excited to eat out of doors in the middle of February.
We were sad to leave Puerto Rico and return to the cold of New York, but we always say how happy we are that when we come home from vacation, we come back to a place we love.