Notes from our Caribbean cruise

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Me on deck in Martinique

We’re back! We’re back at home with our beloved Ernie, on our beloved land. We had a pretty good and extremely relaxing time on our cruise.

The thing I like about cruising is that it’s so stress-free. We pull into the cruise port, unload our luggage, and we’re done working for ten days. By day two or three, I’m completely carefree, and by day three or four, I can’t remember what day of the week it is. As I write this on Saturday morning, I feel fantastic. That’s the good part.

The things we don’t like about cruising are the food, the very short port stops, and the seasickness.

We’re more the type to dive into local restaurants than go to the same buffet and dining room night after night. Even though they varied the menu, it all had the same mass-produced buffet feel. It wasn’t necessarily cheap, but it felt that way, and we’re probably more into food personality than ingredient cost. All cruise long, Erika and I pined for some good chips and salsa – very cheap, but unattainable in the buffet line or the restaurants.

I would recommend cruise-takers stick with the regular dinner seatings as opposed to the anytime-dining on the Princess “Sun Princess” ship, because it just doesn’t have good dining options to support an anytime-dining plan. It’s an older ship, built just before the anytime-dining craze caught on. Sure, technically there’s a few restaurants, but the poolside grill just serves burgers and brats, the Italian place has a small menu and tiny portions, and the Sterling Steakhouse is a complete joke. Princess separates half of the buffet at night and turns it into a faux steakhouse simply by adding candles to the tables. Come on, guys, gimme a break, we’re still sitting next to the egg station and the ice tea dispenser – lose the $15/person surcharge.

Fishing boat in St. Lucia

On this cruise with its several port stops, the islands seemed to blend together in a blur. They all had things that made them stand out, but the time just flew by. We’ve decided that we’d rather pick a single island, fly to it, and stay in a hotel near our main attractions. After we left Trunk Bay on St. Johns, I spent the rest of the cruise trying to get to another good snorkel spot, and couldn’t pull it off. We were so close! I wish we could have just stayed on that island itself, especially since we talked to another couple who were staying in nearby St. Thomas for a two-week vacation.

The one deal-killer for us, though, is Erika’s seasickness. There’s no point in having a vacation when one person is sick to their stomach half the time. Both of the cruises we’ve taken, she’s gotten seasick, so that’s that. Oddly, I didn’t talk to any other passengers who’d gotten seasick, but I guess if they were seasick, they probably wouldn’t be out all the time on the decks with me, hahaha.

I don’t want to sound like a party pooper. We had a good time, met some nice people, and completely relaxed. But it wasn’t our favorite vacation ever. Erika’s favorite is surprisingly the cruise to Mexico we took in February 2005, because she loved swimming next to the ruins of Tulum. My favorite is our Zihuatanejo, Mexico trip a couple of years ago because the food was so good and it had so much local character. Talking to some of the other cruises, Erika and I are extremely lucky to have seen so much of the world so far, and to have developed our own preferred travel styles and destinations.

The rest of this blog post is my travel notes taken during the cruise. A word of warning: this is way, way overly detailed. This isn’t really written for your own reading as much as it is for mine, so I can go back later and remember everything about the vacation. I’ll start uploading my travel photos Saturday and post a note on here when they’re available. It’ll take a while, because I shot several hundred.

And now, the long story:

Day One – Leaving Fort Lauderdale

Wednesday, December 28, 2005 – Photos from Fort LauderdalePhotos Around the Ship

We drove into Port Everglades in the afternoon and got into what turned out to be the slowest line of the day: the security checkpoint to get into the Port itself. Only two out of the five available lanes were marked “Open”, but drivers were using all five lanes anyway, leading to a last-second-merge with honks and all. Tip: when you drive into Port Everglades, go into the far left lane. Due to the design of the lanes, it’s the only one that doesn’t have to merge with anybody else, so that lane goes much faster. The taxis seem to have figured it out – every taxi I saw was in the far left lane.

After getting into the port, the signage left a lot to be desired. In a nutshell: before you leave home, call ahead to find out if the on-port parking garages are full. If so, use Park-N-Fly by the Fort Lauderdale airport, because nobody’s going to tell you that the garages are full until it’s too late, and you have to drive out of the port to park off site, and then endure the lines again while riding in a Park-N-Fly bus.

If the garages aren’t full, drive directly to your cruise ship’s terminal and drop off all of your luggage. (This is why the cruise lines send luggage tags along with the tickets – use them, and your luggage will cruise with you.) Then drive to the nearest parking garage. Shuttles run from the garages to the terminals every half-hour or so, but do yourself a favor and grab the nearest cab instead. It was $2/person to ride from the parking garage to the terminal – much better than waiting an unknown amount of time for a shuttle. Nobody around us had seen a shuttle, so we didn’t take that as a good sign.

Once we got back to the terminal, processing was very quick and painless. From the time we got in line until the time we stepped on the ship, I’m guessing it took maybe fifteen minutes tops. The only bottleneck: everybody had to line up to get Bahamas immigration forms from a single guy who was moving at the speed of light – light coming from a very dim bulb. Nice guy, though, as was absolutely everybody we came into contact with during the boarding process. Nobody was dull and routine.

We’ve only had one prior cruise, a Carnival one going out of New Orleans about six months before Hurricane Katrina hit, and Princess definitely does things much more smoothly than Carnival.

Sun Princess promenade deck

When we stepped aboard the Sun Princess, our positive comparisons to Carnival continued. The Carnival ship felt like a cheap 1980’s hotel with its loud, bright primary colors, neon lights everywhere, and faux-art-deco finishes. The Sun Princess was a mix of historical nautical decor (very dark woods, brass accents) and a mid-priced 1990’s hotel (reserved dark blues and greens, more real artwork, lots of marble). We felt much more at home on the Princess ship.

Our stateroom, an inside cabin on deck 9, was small but well-designed. We found it easy to move around, plenty of storage even for our ten-day cruise. Our steward, Reynaldo (aka Ray), displayed a horrified look on his face when found I’d pushed the two twin beds together. He stammered, “You…I…you….”

“You’re supposed to be the one who does that, right?” We both laughed, and he assured me that he’d come back with a set of sheets, blankets, etc. He chided me and told me I was the one who was on vacation, and he should let me do all the work. That attitude came up several times from different staff members: I really got the genuine impression that they wanted to do their job, and that they wanted to make my vacation worry-free and enjoyable. He didn’t give me any bad attitude at all, and was nothing but friendly.

The room only had one electric outlet, so gadget freaks, bring your USB chargers. I’d guessed this would be the case, so I brought my USB charger for the iPod and my phone. If you’re not familiar with USB chargers, they’re little electric cables that go from your laptop’s USB port to your gadget, and they charge the gadget using your computer’s power. That means you can recharge from the laptop without needing multiple AC outlets. Plus you can recharge from the laptop’s battery, useful in emergency situations.

We hit the buffet before the muster drill, and the food was another improvement from Carnival, although not a night-and-day change like the interior decor. The buffet held more choices, but all of them still seemed like Luby’s food. White fish with butter, beef with red wine sauce, tortellini in tomato sauce, etc. It was like walking down the frozen food aisle and reading off the Stauffer’s boxes. None of the food was bad, at least none that we tried, but we’ve got pretty high standards when it comes to restaurants. The food was tolerable, but I wouldn’t have paid $10 to eat at that buffet. The staff was quick to pick up dirty plates.

The muster drill was a complete joke. They moved our muster station from the Shooting Stars Disco to the casino immediately upstairs, and instructed us to sit anywhere we could – slot machines, roulette tables, the bar, etc. We were all so spread out that we couldn’t hear a thing. The supervisor happened to be the guy who managed the casino, and he spent more time on funny slot machine remarks than he did on life jackets.

Erika and I were more than a little surprised at the number of kids who readily put the life jacket whistles right into their mouth and started blowing. If there’s anything that never gets cleaned on a cruise ship, I gotta bet that’s the one. Norwalk Virus, here we come.

We got in line to talk to the Maitre D at 3pm because our travel agent, VacationsToGo.com, had screwed up our dinner reservations. We wanted to change from anytime-dining to a fixed seating. In order to talk to the Maitre D, we first had to survive a line, then talk to the head waiter and convince him why we wanted to talk to the big cheese. The head waiter’s job appeared to be convincing people that anytime dining was okay, and didn’t suck. “It’s the same food, same waiters, same atmosphere – the only thing different is the color of the chairs.” He’d obviously given this speech more than once, and I sorry enough for him that I didn’t bother to point out that it couldn’t be the same waiters. One waiter doesn’t service dining guests on two different floors at the same time, and since one waiter always serves the same tables every night during a cruise, we would never see a fixed-seating waiter while eating in the anytime dining hall. But anyway, Erika and I gave in and left him to deal with the next irate guest. The couple ahead of us had already busted his chops trying to get a window table, and it was hilariously obvious that the guy was trying to pass the waiter some bills while keeping that unknown to the rest of us. He kept moving around so that his back was to the rest of the line, shielding his illicit transaction from the public. The waiter did his best to be politically correct and not take the moolah.

Leaving Port Everglades

We went above deck to watch the ship leave Fort Lauderdale. I tried getting a glass of wine from one of the deck lounges only to find that the on-deck selection of wine isn’t just limited, it’s non-existent. The poor waiter had to hustle upstairs to the wine lounge, get the glass of wine, and bring it back. And wouldn’t you know it, he brought the wrong kind. I’m not a wine genius by any means, but when I order a glass of Pinot Noir (a red) and the waiter brings back a white wine, I’m pretty sure it’s the wrong one. The waiter was really gracious, ran back upstairs, and fetched back another glass. I wouldn’t have cared what kind of red wine it was at that point – I didn’t want to make him run back a third time! Note to self: when ordering wine from the deck lounge, ask what kinds they have on hand first.

As we made our way out to sea and the sun fell below the horizon, the winds picked up and we figured we’d better go get warm. We headed to our cabin to read and take a nap, and we never came back out. We were both trying to recover from sore throats, so we missed the first night’s activities altogether.

Day Two – Princess Cay

The blue globe is the hand sanitizer

Thursday, December 29, 2005 – Photos from Princess Cay

From our inside cabin, judging by the ship’s motion, I thought we were in rough seas. I could see the bathroom towels swaying, could see the water moving from side to side in the toilet bowl, and guessed Erika would need to take her ginger pills pretty quickly. After showering and heading above deck, I could see that the sea was actually pretty calm, maybe 1-3′ waves. Strong winds, though. Still, I was surprised to see how much the ship moved in such small seas.

Upon entering the Horizon Court buffet for an early breakfast (around 6am), a water-free sanitary hand wash station guilts passersby into cleaning their hands before each trip through the buffet. As if that’s not enough, a staff member stationed nearby catches people and points them back to the hand wash. “Do you want to wash your hands first?” Combine that with the fact that all of the restaurant workers wore plastic gloves, even the bussers, and you get the idea that Princess is pretty serious about sanitation. It reinforces the Luby’s Cafeteria feel, but hey, I’d rather be healthy at Luby’s than be sick at a good restaurant. The Hand Wash Police remained stationed at the front of the buffet for the entire cruise, not just as an introductory-day thing.

The breakfast buffet fare consisted of yogurt, granola, cereals, fruits, and more pastries than I’ve seen at some bakeries. There was an egg station for cooked-to-order omelettes and whatnot. I’m a pastry guy, so I left quite satisfied, but fans of fresh pancakes and waffles should head for the dining room instead of the buffet.

Love Me TenderOur first shore excursion: Princess Cay. It’s not really an island, just a 40-acre stretch of Eleuthera Island. The island doesn’t have a dock of its own, so to get to shore, cruisers have to board a small boat called a tender. The cruise brochure said we’d be at Princess Cay from 9am until 4pm, which is do-able, but in reality, it was more like 10 to 2. They start giving out tender tickets at 9am, and the last tender leaves Princess Cay at 3:30.

I’d initially worried that Princess Cay would suck just because it’s owned and operated by the cruise lines. I couldn’t have been more wrong – it made for a great first day on the beach. The facilities were set up well, plenty of wait staff (brought to land by the cruise ship, evidently), lots of water gear to rent, and plenty of cabanas. It’s not the place to go snorkeling because the shores are rocky and the wildlife nonexistent, but sailors, floaters, and sun worshippers will have a great time.

Princess Cay Beach

Erika and I did absolutely nothing. For a few hours, we shuffled through a few pages of books, but mostly just watched the waves coming ashore, laughed at the little kids getting socked by the waves, and tried not to look at the two very large and aged women in front of us who confidently sunbathed topless. The horror.

The cookout food was apparently brought ashore from the ship and consisted of typical basics – burgers, brats, ribs, etc. Nothing bad, but nothing to get excited about, and certainly nothing island-y.

Erika and I both wanted a fresh coconut, but the closest I could get was pina coladas in coconuts carved up to resemble monkey heads. The monos did not join us in the trip back to the boat.

The tender ride back to the cruise ship was anything but tender: a rollicking, rolling romp through the waves. Thankfully it’s only around five minutes long, because passengers were hooting and hollering with each pounding wave. The lifeboat’s windows leaked water. A lot. Enough that passengers moved around, put up towels, and donned hats.

Bayview Reading Room

Erika found her way to the Bayview Reading Room while I took an afternoon nap. The ship’s library has a row of thick leather chairs with cassette tape players built into the armrests. They may be outdated, but they’re still comfortable, as Erika can attest to after falling asleep in them.

We went into the Marquis Dining Room for our first anytime dinner around seven o’clock. The menu and atmosphere was indeed just as good as the scheduled dining, with the advantage being a slower pace and more individualized service. The wait staff had more time to chat with us about their backgrounds, their time on the ship, and the menu items. The waiter saved me from a dessert choice I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed, but they couldn’t save us from our choice of champagne. We were still getting to know the different brands in the ship’s cellar, and it turned out we didn’t like the full-bodied one we ordered. Ah, well, we’d try something else the next night.

The show of the evening, a production show called Curtains Up, started out pretty badly. Erika and I aren’t exactly fans of musicals – this show is like a “Greatest Hits” for Broadway show tunes – and the two stars were overly cheesy to boot. Lullaby of Broadway has to be one of the dumbest songs I’ve ever heard, but you can’t blame the dancers for what they’ve been given to work with. They threw their hammy hearts into all of the songs, though, and everybody could find something enjoyable. Our favorites were the Cabaret numbers (hubba hubba) and Oklahoma.

Another staff kudo: before the show started, the theater waiter pleasantly took our orders for hot tea (a free beverage) and delivered it back promptly without any fuss. We weren’t trying to be cheap, but we just wanted hot tea to soothe our sore throats.

Note to late-arriving theater guests: either arrive on time, or don’t arrive at all. Under absolutely no circumstances should guests walk into the theater after the lights are out and the show has started. It’s extremely distracting to watch these bozos walk around from aisle to aisle, looking for a few seats grouped together. The show repeats at another time. Better luck next time.

Note to families: get everybody into the theater at the same time. Don’t trickle in one by one, thereby forcing everybody in your aisle to stand up and let you through individually, every three minutes.

The late night buffet at the Horizon Court still leaves a lot to be desired.

Day Three – At Sea

Me up on deck
Friday, December 30, 2005 – Photos at Sea

(If it wasn’t for these notes, I would have absolutely no idea what day it is. Erika and I settled into our cruise ship rhythms last night, and it already feels like home. Man, I’m ready for retirement.)

The morning ocean was as flat as open water could possibly be, and I can’t imagine having a better day at sea.

Every morning I head up on deck with the laptop, and I got a few people stopping to ask questions about it. It spans the extremes: an older gentleman had never seen a laptop before, and a young European crew member talked shop about his laptop’s 17″ wide screen and my Centrino processor, and everybody and their brother asked me if I got WiFi reception all over the ship. (I didn’t – it’s available in the Atrium 5th floor for free, but the signal is very weak.) None of the other guests appear to be morning writers like myself – rather, they’re more the type to lay down in one of the poolside deck chairs and bundle up in a towel in an effort to reserve a few precious chairs for their family. Everybody’s idea of vacation is different.

This ship is quiet. The rooms are quiet: we’ve never heard our neighbors. The deck is quiet: no music, no blaring announcements, and no annoying sales attempts. (They seem to confine the sales pitches to flyers they deposit at your door all day.) This is a heck of a place to relax. The average passenger age appears much older than the Carnival ships, at least evidenced by the very low number of families with kids that I’ve seen. The nightly events cater less to the party animals, and more to the show crowd.

This was the first formal night. I didn’t pack any formalwear, and as we’ve discussed with several other families, guys really get screwed on formal nights. Women can put on anything shimmery and get in, but guys have to get all dolled up in these useless suits and ties. I understand that at one time, cruising was a formal affair, but get with the times. When the restaurant pushes promo shots of booze every night at dinner, we’re not talking about a five-star restaurant here.

At lunchtime, the buffet offered food with a Mexican theme: fajitas, refried beans, chips, salsa, etc. Erika and I were excited at the prospect of good chips and salsa, but the kitchen crew let us down. There is no way to grab intact chips out of a bowl using plastic tongs. We ended up with a bunch of little chip fragments, and some pico de gallo. Hmm. High school cafeteria Mexican.

For evening entertainment, we settled on a comedy show by Don Friezen. He had a strong start, but tapered off into a long routine about a Southwest Airlines pilot on Percocet that didn’t quite make sense. Even the MC, who picked up the mike after him, said she didn’t quite understand that kind of humor.

Day Four – St. Thomas

Saturday, December 31, 2005 – Photos from St. Thomas and St. Johns

Docked in St. Thomas

To get the most out of a vacation, get independent guidebooks for your destination, and read them again and again. These people know what they’re talking about. We picked up the Frommer’s Guide to Caribbean Cruise Ports, and it suggested that the nearby island of St. John holds one of the best beaches in the world. They said going to the Caribbean and skipping Trunk Bay is like touring Europe without going to Paris. Our cruise wasn’t stopping in St. John, but we decided we didn’t want to miss this beach, so we planned our own private excursion.

After disembarking the ship around 10am, we took a private van taxi to Red Hook Bay, where ferries run to the island of St. John every hour. The taxi ride was a thriller in and of itself: tiny two-lane roads are strewn all over the mountainous island of St. Thomas, going up and down hills at crazy angles. We held on for dear life as the taxi driver explained how he’d found God earlier this year in the form of an 84 year old woman who read scriptures. I shall now tell you how I found God in the form of a 50-something taxi driver.

While driving, this guy told us a story about a near-death accident he’d had a few years back. The brakes failed because he hadn’t been maintaining them properly, and he had a vanload full of paying passengers going down a big hill. He held on for dear life, swerved around a lot, and rolled the van over. Thankfully, he said, nobody called his insurance company, and he had the tiniest amount of insurance on the van, just liability, $10k max per person.

He told us this story while we were going up and down hills in his van.

Now, I’m not a marketing guru, but I bet he doesn’t get too many repeat passengers.

Regardless of his driving style, we made it to Red Hook safe and sound. While in line for the $4 ferry tickets, we struck up a conversation with a Nashville couple staying in St. Thomas for a couple of weeks. They were taking a day trip over to St. John to eat at a place known far and wide (okay, maybe not) as the 3rd best cheeseburger in the Caribbean. 3rd best cheeseburger in the Caribbean? What kind of list is that? I suppose if one wants to end up with a best-cheeseburger-in-the-world list, one would have to start by analyzing region-by-region. Bizarre. Regardless, I liked their vacation style, and looking back, that matches our travel ambitions more than a 10-day cruise does.

The ferry and taxi rides exposed the area’s poverty. Residents ferried from one island to another to work, and boarded open safari-bus-style taxis to get to work, shopping, and school. All over both islands, cars just died by the side of the road, never to be resuscitated. I saw one car after another that had blown a tire, and then sat in a state of complete disrepair. Mentally, I kept building pictures of families who were barely scraping by, and then couldn’t afford basic repairs on their cars. Pretty sad.

Erika and I wondered how the islanders really felt about tourism. Sure, we’re bringing in money, but there has to be some bitterness when a steady stream of strangers blow through and blow cash without getting to know the natives.

St-Johns-Trunk-Bay-031.jpg

Enough of that – let’s get back to my selfish vacation. 😀 Trunk Bay was indeed gorgeous, if not a little small. Okay, it was really small, especially compared to our huge, wide swathes of sand back in Miami Beach. As far as beach itself goes, the sand was good, but not plentiful by any means, and at first, I was a little underwhelmed. Sure, the water was clear, but come on – it still wasn’t clear enough for us to identify those rocky things we stepped on.

Then I got into the water, put on my optical-correcting goggles for the first time, and stuck my head underwater.

Holy moly. That’s some clear water, and those rocky things are dead coral!

The US National Park Service maintains Trunk Bay just like any other national park in the US, with guideposts, signs explaining the natural life, helpful trail markers, etc. But here’s the difference: this park is underwater. I snorkeled (again, for the first time) out into the water and started down the underwater coral reef trail. It’s marked with signs, explanations of different kinds of fish, and has helpful buoys where tired snorkelers can catch a breath above water. The coral trail runs from the ocean’s edge out to a nearby island and back.

I was completely amazed. We’re talking life-changing experience. I could see so clearly, so far down underwater, and even more, the underwater world held so many gorgeous living things! The experience was beyond anything I’ve ever seen, and the only thing I can possibly relate it to would be taking a swim through the tropical aquarium at a major US zoo. I’ve always seen those aquariums with their dozens of unique fish species and thought, “Yeah, right. They’re just stuffing all those totally different fish together to simulate what the entire ocean is like. Those diverse fish don’t all hang out in the same ten foot square area.” But they do! I could drift for a few moments and spot a dozen different species of fish all within a space the size of my bed.

I didn’t make it far on my first snorkeling attempt, not more than a hundred feet, and I came straight back to Erika – who stayed in shallow water because she doesn’t swim. I tried to explain how exciting the whole thing was, but I did a pretty bad job because I was still kinda freaked out by the ability to breathe underwater. I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t open my eyes in the shower, let alone underwater. Being able to both see AND breathe while scoping out all this cool stuff – well, I was just blown away.

I snorkeled out farther and farther, and I’m hooked. What an incredible time! It was worth the side trip, even though we only got to spend a couple of hours at Trunk Bay versus the four hours of ferry & taxi time it took to get from the cruise ship dock to the bay and back. I would heartily recommend it to anybody – but then again, that’s why we buy guidebooks, read them, and heed them.

High Tide Bar in St. Johns

We had about 45 minutes to kill while waiting to catch the return ferry from St. John to St. Thomas, so we walked over to the High Tide Bar. It’s a friendly, pleasant, open-air bar right next to the Cruz Bay ferry, and the (apparently American) owner was brilliant to set it up there. They got plenty of walk-up business from tourists taking the ferry. The menu offered locally styled food as well as American favorites.

We ordered conch fritters, chips & salsa, and Virgin Islands Pale Ale. I fell madly in love with the food and beer, and I promptly declared it the best food we’d had yet on this vacation. The chips appeared to be made of fried filo dough: soft, yet crispy. I liked the pineapple-based salsa more than Erika did, and we both hankered for some good old fashioned Mexican salsa at some point during this cruise. The Virgin Islands Pale Ale was light and very fruity. I pledged to look it up in my alcohol-distributor client’s database after the vacation to find local places that carried it.

Back on the cruise ship, the New Year’s Eve celebration required formal clothing, and since both Erika and I were pretty tired out, we decided to skip it. We grabbed food from the buffet and hit the bed for a nap at 8pm, saying we’d wake up at 10pm and join the festivities up on deck. At 10pm, we were still zonked, so we slept until 11:45pm. I went up on deck and found the boat completely deserted, including the pool bar – everybody was in the Atrium Lounge for the official party. So much for my impromptu affair. Instead, I hit the Horizon Court buffet and celebrated the countdown with a Filipino waiter – and no, I didn’t kiss him, hahaha. I was the only guest in the restaurant for a few minutes until the partiers came up from the lounge party, at which point I retired back to the room with Erika to watch TV and fall back asleep.

Day Five – Martinique

Sunday, January 1, 2006 – Photos from Martinique

Martinique coastline

This morning, I sat in a deck chair, sipped my latte, and watched the dolphins leaping out of the water in the shadow of the cloud-covered peak of a volcano.

Un-bee-lievable. The whole cruise was worth it for that moment, and you can watch it unfold in a movie I shot with my digital camera. (I’ll link to this later.) That one instant is a perfect example of why I tell everybody to carry a pocket-size digital camera that shoots movies. Play around with it until you’re comfortable enough to pull it out of your pocket at any time and be shooting video within five seconds. Life’s best moments happen at unpredictable times, and you want to be able to remember them forever.

Martinique-Cathedral-115.jpg

At noon, the ship disembarked at Martinique, and hundreds of cruisers poured out into downtown Fort de France. The silence was deafening. Our Frommer’s guide had warned us that Martinique’s shops would be closed on Sundays, and the fact that it was New Year’s Day didn’t help either. Aside from a handful of t-shirt vendors, there was literally nothing to do. The restaurants were closed, the famous church was closed, the library was closed, etc., etc. This would have been a perfect day to take an excursion snorkeling or sailing, but we’d expected at least a few shops to be open, so we prowled the town. Nothing. We scored some t-shirts and a couple of paintings, and we stepped back onto the ship in less than two hours. Erika and I spent the afternoon lounging on the promenade deck reading and writing.

The ship’s dinner menu and the production shows took clues from French Martinique: both were very French, although the restaurant did a better job than the show. C’est Magnifique consisted of various Paris-inspired numbers meant to tell a story of love won and lost, but the female star’s bad wigs were so distracting that it was hard to keep a straight face. To add insult to injury, she had to do a song by Edith Piaf, one of Erika’s favorite singers, and those are some tough shoes to fill. I liked the outfits and the songs they chose, but – well, let’s just say Erika and I won’t be going to any musicals or revues anytime soon.

The pitching motion of the ship finally caught up with Erika just before the show started. She was uncomfortable enough that she decided to pass on the next day’s shore excursion, an all-day jaunt through St. Lucia via boats and buses – probably the least enjoyable thing possible for someone seasick.

Day Six – St. Lucia

The local pilot boards off St. Lucia

Monday, January 2, 2006 – Photos from St. Lucia

When big boats like freighters and cruise ships pull into local harbors, a local pilot gets on board the ship to help the ship’s captain find his way into the harbor and dock. The local pilots know the ins and outs of how to get the ships in safely.

I watched the local harbor pilot motor up to the ship and try to board. I’d never seen this before, and now I’ve got quite a level of respect for those guys. It’s enough to know how to drive a ship, but the boarding is the tough part: these guys have to jump from a little bobbing boat up onto a rope ladder, climb that, and get into the cruise ship – all in pitching seas. Whitecaps dotted the ocean’s 3-5′ waves. The pilot’s boat appeared to be doing its darndest to avoid bumping into the cruise ship, which was great for the mechanicals of both vessels, but didn’t do much for the poor pilot trying to climb aboard. Over the course of ten minutes, they must have made as many passes. Impressive. Talk about a case of the Mondays.

Due to her bout with seasickness, Erika skipped the shore excursion, The Best of St. Lucia by Land & Sea. We’ve since both agreed this would be the last cruise we take: she’s just too susceptible to motion sickness. I went anyway by myself, and I’m glad she didn’t go, because the van rides on this excursion were the perfect scene to shoot an ad for motion sickness medicine. One hairpin turn followed another, all the while going up and down mountain-side one-and-a-half lane roads with no guardrails and huge drop-offs. Throw in off and on tropical rainstorms, and it was a recipe for an accident.

Hurricane Hole in St. Lucia
Our first stop on the van tour was a photo-op of the bay where our cruise ship docked, and the second stop overlooked Hurricane Harbor, a bay where The Moorings (a charter company) keeps some sailboats. The guide explained boats pile in there during a hurricane because it’s a great place to ride out storms. My mind went back to our recent weathering of Hurricane Wilma in our condo building, with its steel-reinforced concrete walls. The thought of riding out a hurricane in a sailboat, no matter how safe the harbor, sounded utterly ridiculous. The live aboard lifestyle is not for me, no matter how cool it sounds, and no matter how many magazines I subscribe to. I’m a wussie.

The next stop took us into a poor coastal village whose main claim to fame was a clean public restroom. I kid you not. Our van stopped on a short street running along the ocean’s edge, not fifty feet from the water. At one end were the aforementioned restrooms, and along the rest of the street, vendors had set up small booths with t-shirts, banana ketchup, trinkets and hats. These were not big-time vendors – these were women and children clearly just scraping by, sharing street space with roosters and kittens.

Seaside fishing village on St. Lucia

Having sold our first home a few months ago and being just barely in tune with Miami Beach real estate prices, I couldn’t get my head around this little piece of oceanfront property. Call me materialistic, but all I could think about was how much this land was worth. It was half an hour’s drive from an airport and cruise terminals, just around the corner from great snorkeling, and there was the slightest bit of a town forming around it. Granted, getting water and sewage set up would probably present an obstacle, and the builder would have to design in some serious storm protection, but damn, we’re talking about oceanfront property with a street next to it! I’m glad I’m not in the real estate business: I would have been too tempted to call a bank right then and there, trying to scrape together money to buy that little patch. “Who do I need to bribe to make this happen?” Hahahaha.

Throughout the day’s drives, a similar theme kept showing up: guest houses in various states of disrepair dotted the south side of the island, the only side we toured. The guidebooks and our guide said that hotel development is concentrated on the northern side of the island. It looked like people had built mini-hotels all over the south side, without thought to beach access, nearby hiking trails, or any of the other amenities that bring in tourism. Build it and they do not come, unfortunately – takes a little more thought than that. (Kind of why I’m not in real estate – I just know what I don’t know, and I know it’s a lot!)

St.Lucia Drive-In Volcano

The van motored on, this time to Sulfur Springs, touted as the world’s only drive-in volcano. We drove into the crater, true to advertising, and hiked up higher to get a view of the bubbling, liquid-hot magma – oh, wait, turns out it‮s just bubbling black water. It’s really, really hot black water, so at least it’s got that going for it. It’s black because it’s so loaded with iron content, and it stinks because it’s loaded with sulfur. Natural gas companies add sulfur to their product so that customers can smell when there’s a leak. Sulfur’s strong, rotten-egg stench is easily detectable by anyone, anywhere, anytime, and the foul smell drives people away, so it’s perfect to get people out in the event of a natural gas leak.

Did I mention the smell?

Yeah. So, the volcano stank, as evidenced by some visitors covering their mouths and noses with their bandannas, shirts, used baby diapers, and whatever else was available that smelled better. Our guide explained that the sulfur water had healing, medicinal qualities that would make one’s skin look better. Who cares how good you look, though, when you stink this badly? I think I’ll stick with my current skin and scent.

The ever-present street vendors hawked necklaces supposedly made from the volcano’s lava, with the same healing qualities as the sulfur-laden water. Anybody who buys one of those is a true sucker: these necklaces are the exact same necklaces as we’d seen on the past couple of tour stops, made from the same material, and here’s the kicker – the necklaces didn’t stink. I don’t even understand why you’d want a healing necklace that reeks of sulfur, much less a regular necklace with that same smell, but hey – it’s working for the street vendors, and who am I to take away from their livelihood? I said nothing as some of the cruise folks handed over their money.

Fond Doux Plantation cocoa bean drying racks

We stopped at the Fond Doux Plantation, a cocoa and fruit farm, for a tour. The place felt like more of a plant garden than a working farm, but it was well kept-up and showed a lot of interesting plants.

The cocoa beans, 95% of which are sent to Hershey, are dried in open flat trays at two stages during processing. The trays are mounted on wheels so they can be easily slid into the barn when rain comes down, and we got an unintended demonstration of those wheels when an afternoon rainstorm popped up. From that point on, all afternoon, the sky would open up briefly at random times, despite a continuing bright sunshine. That’s the tropics.

Our guide had informed us that unlike other Caribbean islands, water was plentiful on St. Lucia thanks to a reservoir system. A few short minutes later, though, as we approached our next destination, she explained the lunch menu and said the first drink was free, but that we’d have to pay for water. Uhhh, what? I thought it was plentiful – but then again, so are the sucker tourists….

We lunched at The Still, a former rum distillery turned “resort”. Like West Michigan, “resort” seems to mean a hotel with a restaurant and a pool. I loved the open stone buildings on the grounds. If I built a home on St. Lucia, I’d want it to look just like this building. It’d be tough to survive a hurricane, but hey, if I could afford a house in St. Lucia, I could afford to split before the hurricane hit.

St. Lucia Dive Spot

After lunch, we drove to a dock and boarded the large catamaran Sun Kissed for our afternoon snorkeling tour. The crew was fun, the rum was free, and the views were beautiful. The weather wasn’t bad, but with a tight timeline, the crew decided to motor rather than raise sails. I was a little disappointed, because I was looking forward to the chance to see such a big boat under sail, but life goes on.

The catamaran pulled up to our designated swimming spot, the crew dropped the stairway in the bow, and the tour guide announced that we were free to start swimming and snorkeling.

Several people gathered around the ladder and…stood there.

I went up to the bow and found that nobody wanted to be the first one to descend the ladder and discover how cold and how deep the water was! So, being of questionable mind and an unquestionable lack of ability, I went first. I got a huge kick out of that – fifty-some people on this boat, and who’s the only guy willing to step into the unknown water? Me. That’s definitely not the way I see myself, and maybe I need to work on how I see myself. Anyway, down I went, and discovered that the water was bathwater warm and about six feet deep.

I continued my voyage of bravery and stupidity by soldiering off alone in the open ocean looking for coral reefs. Only after I made my way a couple hundred yards from the boat did I realize:

1. The boat had no lifeguard aboard.

2. There was no barrier island to protect me from the ocean waves.

3. I’m a 32 year old overweight guy with less than three hours of swimming time in the last five years.

4. The only other people with snorkeling gear still hadn’t gotten into the water yet, and they looked even less fit than me.

This was beyond “No Fear” territory and was well into “No Brains”. I scaled back my ambitions and confined my snorkeling adventures within a hundred yards of the catamaran.

St. Lucia dive spot

We were on the windward side of St. Lucia, the west side, away from the Atlantic Ocean. The windward side is relatively protected from ocean waves, but still nowhere near as calm as the Trunk Bay inlet at St. Johns. I had a great time just drifting along, face down, watching the waves pull the sand back and forth across the ocean bottom. But that wave action meant the water was cloudier than the crystal-clear St. Johns. I could still see the ocean bottom and the passing fish quite well, but they didn’t have the super-realistic snap, and the colors didn’t pop.

The only type of visible coral within a couple hundred yards of the boat was the yellow tubes. (Sorry, no scientific verbiage here, I’m a newbie at this underwater stuff.)

The fish were completely unafraid and swam within a foot or two of me. The quantity of fish was about the same as Trunk Bay – a few dozen fish for every square yard of ocean bottom – but they weren’t as large. I held discussions with the other snorkelers, and probably since all of us were relative newcomers to snorkeling, we agreed that this was one of the high points of our lives. There was nothing that could compare with sticking your head underwater and seeing a whole new colorful, lively world just below your feet. This wasn’t the excursion to take for people who just wanted to focus on snorkeling; it made a great cap to a day of seeing St. Lucia.

An hour later, the catamaran pulled out of our snorkeling hole and headed back for the cruise ship, plowing through one brief rain shower after another. We did our best to deplete the boat’s stash of rum, and the crew seemed more than willing to assist our efforts.

Dive-Crew-Catches-a-Mackerel-391.jpg

Out in the ocean, we witnessed a stream of increasingly more courageous fishermen. At first, we marveled at two guys out together in a small 25 foot craft with a single large outboard engine. If that engine failed, they could be in a lot of trouble pretty quickly. Then we saw one guy out alone in a 20 foot boat with a very small outboard engine, maybe 15 horsepower, not much more than a trolling motor. We were stunned that he’d even take on these rolling waves in the rain. If the rain and wind intensified, he could well be swept out to sea without enough power to fight the ocean, and he didn’t have a friend to help out. Clearly, these were people who didn’t want to be out at sea – they had to be. Finally, we saw a guy in a rowboat, pulling in his fishing line by hand! We were dumbfounded. This is the ocean, not some local lake or inlet, but the real, bona fide ocean. The ocean is something to be not just respected, but even feared, and this guy was out in a rowboat. Hats off.

Inside the boat, a member of the crew actually caught a mackerel as we sailed – well, motored – home. The passengers cheered his skill.

All in all, this excursion was worth every penny, and I’d recommend it to anybody with a strong stomach stopping over in St. Lucia. The faint-of-heart should be aware that the roads are winding and dramatic, and between the roads and the catamaran, motion sickness is a real threat.

Back on the cruise ship, the dinner service and food in the Marquis dining room surpassed our expectations, but with Erika’s escalating seasickness, we had to abort just before dessert. We skipped the comedy show as it was being held in the rocking-and-rolling Vista Lounge, very prone to wave motions due to its location in the ship. The evening’s scheduled island-style party up on the pool deck got cancelled due to inclement weather, but of course the rain stopped shortly after the cancellation announcement went over the loudspeakers. I spent the evening out on the promenade deck updating my travel notes and cataloging my photos. That one day alone, I shot over 500 photos!

The Sun Princess holds around 2,000 guests, but it feels much smaller than that by far. I’m not a raging socialite – I don’t even go to the bars – but by evening 6, I continuously ran into people I’d met and talked with. That evening on the promenade deck, several couples stopped and talked to me while I chilled out with the laptop and a glass of wine.

Day Seven – Grenada

Tuesday, January 3, 2006 – Photos from Grenada

Laundry day – or at least, laundry morning. The number of daily activities on board and on islands means we change outfits two, three or four times a day, burning through clean clothes at an alarming rate. I had packed about 20 shirts, but by evening six, I was down to three clean ones. I eyed the gift t-shirts we picked up in Martinique, but I decided I’d better do the right thing.

Guests can avoid the laundry room by paying $15 per bag for laundry service, but the bags are quite small while the washers & dryers are full size. I have a hard time paying what amounts to $30 per load for laundry when I have a couple of hours of idle time in the mornings, so I opted to do my own.

Laundry facilities on board the Sun Princess are clean, well-kept, cheap at 75 cents per load, and very small. Our floor had a laundry with two washers and two dryers. (I’ll spare you from pictures.) Erika advised me to go early to avoid the lines, but when I stumbled in with a duffel bag of clothes at 6:00 AM, the two washers were already running. I plopped into a chair with my laptop and waited for the other person’s two loads to finish. After he moved his clothes into the dryer and left, I started loading mine into the washers. As I put in the coins, a woman came in carrying clothes and tried opening the washers. I explained I was using them, and that she could be next. She said disgustedly, “You’re using BOTH of them? Come on.”

Just then, the first guy came back in to add dryer sheets, and thankfully, these two knew each other. “Oh, I should have known!” she exclaimed. “What the hell are you doing washing clothes this early?”

“Hey, you gotta get with it! These things are full 24 hours a day! You gotta get up earlier.” They joked and laughed, and I was off the hook. Whew. She made me promise twice that I’d go knock on her door after my wash finished. These laundry room people are ruthless.

By 8 am, I was done with the laundry, tired of fending off strangers from stealing my washer and dryer. I made my way up onto the deck with a couple of lattes, my iPod playing Jimmy Buffet, and watched the tenders scuttling back and forth to the Grenada shoreline.

With Erika’s bout of seasickness, we decided to skip the van and boat excursions and head for Grand Anse Beach, conveniently located just a couple of miles from the ship’s mooring. We took a $15 car taxi ride over, and we had an interesting question-and-answer session with the driver, a retired police officer. He pointed out some of the more interesting sights, including the former prime minister’s office up on a hill. Back in the 80’s, some Cuban rebels took over the building and the Grenada government asked the US for help. Reagan sent it in the form of a bomb dropped directly on the building. Gotta love that guy. No screwing around there.

Grenada suffered horribly during 2004’s Hurricane Ivan, and the effects were still visible on the vast majority of structures. Churches, libraries, homes and shops all had their roofs blown off and were still unrepaired. I’d guess that 50% of the structures were uninhabitable, and I saw no construction or repair work going on. The economy just won’t support a rebuilding effort yet.

Aside from the friendly driver, the short ride to the beach was pretty brutal. There was no infrastructure to support tourism: the streets all around the cruise ship docks are barely two lanes wide, and shared with locals walking around. Our taxi herked and jerked as it inched through foot and car traffic, usually staying below 5mph. I might recommend the water taxi service to Grand Anse beach over the car service, but frankly, I didn’t like that option either. The water taxis were comprised of skiffs loaded down with so many people that their hulls were maybe a foot over the waterline, if that. I had visions of one strong wave capsizing the boat right over, and I’ve seen too many passengers that couldn’t swim to shore – including me – in the strong currents here.

Me backfloating in Grand Anse

Grand Anse is a long stretch of beach, about 2 miles long. Stay with the side furthest from the cruise ships. Not armed with that piece of knowledge, we avoided the crowds – we’re not people-people at the beach. We went to the end closer to the cruise ships and rented an umbrella and sit-up beach chairs for $9.

Locals prowl up and down the beach hawking every kind of handmade ware you could imagine, along with some you can’t imagine. One guy walked up carrying nothing and said he was the “therapy man”, offering foot massages. Riiiight. While that would indeed be an unforgettable vacation memory, I somehow had to pass. They just don’t stop, either: we were visited by a vendor every 3-5 minutes.

I temporarily avoided the vendors by taking a swim only to discover why people don’t go to the north end of the beach. The first ten feet out are sharp rocks, and past that is thick seaweed. It takes a lot to get me out of the water, especially when the beach is crawling with street vendors, but I can only back float so long without getting bored.

No snorkeling here – the water was way too cloudy, less than a couple of feet of visibility. I would have been rather interested to see this forest of seaweed, too.

We packed up after less than an hour and walked over to the driver’s favorite beachside restaurant, Coconut Beach. I absolutely loved the atmosphere – very casual, right on the beach, sand on the floors – but the service was so casual as to be intolerable. Nobody would talk to us, and we gave up after sitting at a table for ten minutes without so much as a sight of a waitress. The prices on the menu were in Eastern Caribbean dollars, and converted to dollars, they were ridiculously high. The cheapest entree, fried shrimp with no sides, was $25. I can tolerate high prices with good service, but since nobody would talk to us, we walked out and caught a cab back to the docks.

Later that evening, I spoke with other couples who’d taken tours of the island. They came away with similar impressions of the island’s deep poverty and disrepair. One couple saw the national stadium, and it looked like the hurricane hit yesterday, with big chunks of concrete lying around. I wondered to myself how our recovery effort in New Orleans will compare to that.

I’m very much in favor of sustainable tourism, especially helping other cultures profit from their natural resources, but if I had the chance to stop in Grenada again, I doubt I’d get off the boat. I’d rather send an aid check than spend a day of my vacation here. Maybe an aid organization ought to start up something like that – have a virtual vacation in the country of your choice. You send a $200 check, and you get back a bunch of knickknacks, t-shirts and postcards. (Note to relatives: your knickknacks and t-shirts are en route, having been earned the old-fashioned way.)

The ship’s food got markedly better over the last couple of days, especially in the Horizon Court buffet. The past two days have brought good pastas and soups. The meat at the carving station was still burnt to a dry crisp, though: I actually dipped my London Broil in the tomato soup just to make the meat edible.

Day Eight – St. Vincent

Wednesday, January 4, 2006 – Photos from St. Vincent

St-Vincent-Coastline.jpg

Every night, the ship’s staff distributes flyers describing the next day’s port. These flyers describe the island’s history, culture, excursions and of course, shopping. Today’s flyer for St. Vincent was very thin on details, and the shopping section read, “The only shopping is in Kingstown.” That’s great, but Kingstown is in the middle of the island, miles away from the port, and we’d need to cross a mountain range to get there. Hmmm.

Erika and I disembarked nonetheless, just to see what we could see. The tiny port held half a dozen knickknack stores, some of which didn’t even accept credit cards. The port was surrounded with barbed wire, and leaving the grounds looked like leaving a government checkpoint. The other side held decrepit buildings, without a store sign or an inviting place in sight, so we turned back and came back on the ship.

We talked to a Canadian couple who’d taken a St. Vincent van tour and enjoyed it quite a bit. In fact, they thought it was the most secure, friendly island they’d seen. They’d also spoken with another couple who paid a taxi driver $20 to take them to a snorkel spot, which turned out to be great. So the word on the street: get far away from the cruise port and you’ll do fine.

The St. Vincent stop only lasted five hours, just long enough for the cruise ship to ring up a few excursions, and then we set sail for Port Everglades.

Afternoon activities at sea included a German Bierfest Buffet from 5:30 until 10. I’m not a big German food fan other than the sausages, but they had brockwurst, knockwurst, and a couple of other varieties, so I was a happy camper.

Days Nine & Ten – At Sea

Thursday – Saturday, January 5-7, 2006 – Photos at Sea

Sunrise on promenade deck

The last couple of days, the ship rocked and rolled more and more. I was impressed that nothing ever seemed to creak or groan with all this moving around – the ship felt screwed together really well – but everything moved around. Our stateroom near the center of the ship jittered from side to side for hours, and further toward either end of the ship, the ride was a big roller coaster. Saturday morning in the Atrium Lounge near the center, the Christmas tree fell over as I sat typing travel notes. I couldn’t understand all the motion, because outside, the wind and waves weren’t bad at all, waves being never more than 4-5′ tall. The only thing I could think was that the stabilizers weren’t working or had been turned off.

At sea, Erika stayed in the room for the most part and read or watched TV. The onboard TV channels don’t include commercials, which was great since we were going through Tivo withdrawal. The live CNN feed showed stock numbers during commercials, and the ship had special feeds for sitcoms, Travel Channel shows, and Discovery shows, all without commercials. Two thumbs up.

I stuck with the promenade deck. Every few minutes as the sun rose, I would climb out of my comfy deck lounge chair, take a few pictures of the sun and clouds for my computer wallpaper collection, and then settle back down.

The cruise staff planned plenty of events all day and night for both days at sea, and there was something for everybody. They pushed the art auctions a lot via nightly junk mail flyers distributed to each room. I’d read complaints from other cruisers about how the art was displayed so prominently around the ship, but it’s really just confined to deck 7 forward, and we enjoyed checking out the collections. I have a hard time complaining about an abundance of art.

Drifting boat off Puerto Rico

A bit of unplanned excitement occurred on Thursday when someone spotted a drifting boat nearby. The captain swung the big ship around to get a closer look, and we maneuvered within a few hundred feet of the tiny dinghy. Thankfully, it was empty. We hoped that the boat had simply drifted away from its mooring, unattended. The captain notified the US Coast Guard in nearby Puerto Rico, and we continued on our way.

The chef ran a sushi demonstration followed by a sushi buffet lunch in the Horizon Court Buffet at 11:30. There was a veritable stampede of guests packed around the small buffet tables – I had not seen that many people packed into a buffet area during the whole trip. The sushi left a lot to be desired, but it was still a refreshing change from more typical buffet food.

One of the funniest parts of the cruise occurred on the last day, Saturday morning, as I sat in the Atrium Lounge polishing up the travel notes. I overheard hilarious conversations between husbands and wives. Funny how ten days of close proximity affects people:

Older woman toting a small suitcase: “I told you I can’t follow you because I keep tripping over that damn big suitcase you’re dragging.” Husband: “Then let’s switch. You take your stuff, and I’ll take mine.”

Canadian woman to her husband: “Stop worrying about the money, eh? They just charge it to the card. Besides, it’s in US dollars. They don’t convert it to Canadian dollars, because they’re both dollars. They just charge it as is, eh?”

Grouchy curmudgeon: “I can’t sit still in this place for another half an hour.” Upbeat wife: “Three laps around the outside deck is a mile. The door’s over there.”

Pre-teen kid to his parents: “This is the part I hate. We see something really nice for once, and we have to leave it.”

Baby: “WAAAAAAAAH!”

It was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud. Erika and I have it pretty darned good: our stressed-out part is the start of the vacation, packing and preparing, not the end.

And that was our cruise! The final verdict is up at the top of this, but in a nutshell, I left completely relaxed and rejuvenated. As Erika declared, this last port was our favorite.

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