Day 1: We’re off!
Our family of six has left home for our final vacation before our oldest graduates and heads off on his own. Tomorrow, we will embark on a seven night Carnival cruise through the southern Caribbean. We’re especially excited for this particular cruise because, instead of just the standard five stops, this week-long cruise ports at six different islands. As enjoyable as a cruise ship can be, the real fun for us comes from exploring islands and getting a bit more “cultured”.
So on day one, we’re visiting the beautiful island of Puerto Rico. We flew into San Juan a night early, to be sure we wouldn’t miss the ship. The cruise port and the international airport are only 15 kilometers apart, so we split the difference and stayed in Isla Verde, almost exactly halfway between the two. From the airport, we jumped in a taxi which comfortably fit all of us, and headed to a condominium we had rented through vrbo.com. The trip was quick (6 kilometers), the conversation fleeting (the driver knew little English, and I know less Spanish), and the fare reasonable (being regulated and standard across the city.)
Since it was still early afternoon, we ventured out on a walk, looking for a place to eat lunch. Isla Verde is close to the water, so the area attracts both tourists and seasonal residents alike and so in turn hosts many restaurants, hotels, stores, and a vibrant nightlife. After enjoying just a few blocks of leg stretching and sunshine, we stumbled upon a treasure. Gorda’s Baja Taco, located right on Avenida Isla Verde, beckoned us with its brightly colored storefront and invitation to try its fish tacos. Ivan, the restaurant’s sole proprietor (and cook, and cleaner, and accountant), told me he had eaten at a similar establishment while visiting Arizona and fell in love with it. So he came back home to his native Puerto Rico and opened up Gorda’s, with the same flavors and dishes he experienced, but with his own Puerto Rican flair.
According to my oldest daughter McKell, it was “like a food truck in a building!” ‘Cause we love food trucks. Even her sister Kaylee proclaimed, “I don’t even like tacos, but I love these!” After looking through the menu of burritos, quesadillas, nachos and tacos, we took up the invitation to try the fish tacos and ordered those and a few other kinds.
“This is the best taco I have ever had!” When my wife compliments the food that profoundly, it means something. Truthfully, the tacos really were good. My favorite was the chicken, which meant it had to be absolutely delicious, as good as the fish taco was, as promised. After lunch, we found the nearby beach and dipped our toes in the water for a few minutes, and then hailed a taxi and spent the rest of the afternoon in Viejo San Juan, the historic center and oldest settlement of the island. We spent some time enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of the old city, but it’s always the old architecture and history that calls to me.
So I dragged the family (who were thankfully willing to go) to Castillo de San Cristobal, the largest fort built by the Spanish to guard the old settlement of San Juan. About a third of it has been torn down to make room for the growing city, but it still looms over the coastline. We didn’t pay the six dollars to wander its quarters and tunnels, since the old walls and guerites, or sentry boxes, that looked out into the ocean were free and open to the public. The stone walls and towers offered a fun place to climb, but I have to admit, since they tower high above the shoreline, and there are many spots with no barriers, I got nervous watching my kids peek over the edges. But I did it too. It’s hard to resist! But we had to be careful.
We’re on the island of St. Thomas. The ship has been fun, and we like all the eating, but we were excited to disembark in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas’s capital. We had signed up for a scheduled excursion with Castaway Girl for a half-day catamaran and snorkeling adventure, so we immediately found the tour guide and made our way to the boat, harbored just a short distance from the cruise ship.
Our catamaran, despite its size that could easily fit fifty, was fast. Simply under the power of the wind, we were still faster than many of the other boats leaving the harbor. The smooth ride over the water was thrilling, the brisk wind cool, and the sight of the St. Thomas coast speeding by constantly reminded me I wasn’t in Utah anymore! The captain sailed us over to Buck Island, a small uninhabited piece of land just off the coast. Buck Island claims the second-oldest lighthouse in the Caribbean, but the real draw was the potential of seeing turtles in its small bay and the pieces of shipwreck lying under the water just off its protected beach. We stopped a few meters from the island, dropped anchor, and proceeded to jump off the catamaran’s deck, which sat about 6 feet above the water. Even though there is a ladder we could have climbed, the jump was much more fun.
We followed the snorkeling guide to a spot where we could see the turtles, fish, and other wildlife in the ocean. The water was clear enough to see the bottom and get a good view of the vegetation and rock formations. My family loves to experience new things, so when the tour guide dived down, brought up a Brittle Sea Star, and asked, “Who wants to put this in your mouth?”, McKell was the first one to yell out, “I do!” This turned out to be one of the greatest pictures of the vacation. The starfish crawled out of her mouth on the first attempt, but she got it to stay for the picture on the second try. The starfish wasn’t harmed, and the guide eventually put it back on the ocean floor, but what a great experience I’m not sure we would have had anywhere else. This journey just keeps getting better.
It’s our day at sea. We enjoy the all-inclusive food and drinks, the professional shows, the games and fun on board, and not having to unpack more than once this whole trip. Enough said.
We’re in Barbados. I had read the island is known for its luscious pink and white sand beaches. That reputation is well deserved. This island easily had the best beach on our trip. We had looked at a few maps and done some research, and thought we could just walk off the ship and over to a beach. It would have been a 25 minute walk, which didn’t seem too far away. We spurned all the taxi drivers offering us rides, until we finally gave in just outside the port entrance. A driver offered to take us to a much better beach for only $3 a person, rather than the double and triple amounts that others were charging. We climbed in his van and rode off through Bridgetown, ending up at a beach in Carlisle Bay you wouldn’t realize was there from the street unless you knew where to go. We rented a beach lounge chair and umbrella from the local vendors, but I ended up not using it much. The beach was a gorgeous white, cool to the touch, and the softest sand I have ever stepped in. Even throughout the day, with the sun beating down on the beach, the sand stayed cool. I didn’t want to stop standing in it! Just running my toes through the soft sand is an experience I still haven’t forgotten. No other beach, even the ones with nicer boardwalks and stores, could stand up to this one. Ah, that sand!
Another island, another beach, another glorious day in the sun. We are here on the absolutely gorgeous St. Lucia. Out of the all the islands, this one is the most beautiful. There is so much green covering rolling hills and high mountains. Based on what we thought was good research, we walked out of the ship, by the small stores, and past the drivers asking for $40 or more a person to take us to one of the many beaches on the island. We finally stopped and asked one to take us to the much closer Choc Beach. At only $5 a person, we thought it was a great deal.
Once again, just as in Barbados, listening to the experience and guidance of the locals turned out to be our best choice. The taxi driver, willing to take us wherever we wanted to go, strongly expressed how unappealing Choc Beach is. No security, no services. Frankly, it was the no security that sold me, wanting to watch out for my family, but it wasn’t until he drove us past the beach, a small stretch of dark sand and broken trees with no one on it, that we decided to take his advice. Of course, the fact that he only raised his fare by $10 for our entire family helped sway us, so off we scuttled to Reduit Beach in Rodney Bay, a beautiful area built up for tourism and with a good view of Pigeon Island and its small ruin. The beach was nice and renting another chair and umbrella made it comfortable, but unfortunately the constant hawking of wares by the locals got to be a bit annoying. Every one of them was kind and gracious, but when you can’t rest for 5 minutes without being offered aloe vera straight from the plant, bowls and hats made of banana leaves, an assortment of jewelry and shells and scarves, or what admittedly looked like a very tasty assortment of chickpeas, potato, and meats wrapped in flatbread, it was difficult to relax. We still enjoyed our time and purchased a couple items (the banana leaf bowl still sits on our counter at home), rented a kayak for a ride out in the bay, and took a stroll down the beach, before our time was up and we were heading back to the ship.
St. Kitts was our day off from the beaches and water. The ship docked right at the capital city of Basseterre, so we spent our day wandering the town. It is small, only about four blocks square, but has well-restored buildings and local flair that drew us in. We headed first for St. George’s Anglican Church and were rewarded with a wide open and welcoming structure. We climbed the restored bell tower, up some very steep stairs. Above the large cast iron bell, the hatch was open to the roof, so we promptly climbed up and out. I am sure it isn’t the safest place on the island because of its height and has no barriers to stop us from tumbling over the side, but it was refreshing to be in the cool wind and take a panoramic view of the city, the harbor, and the surrounding island.
After the steep descent, we wandered the church grounds and cemetery, and then made our way a couple blocks further to the Basseterre Co-Cathedral of Immaculate Conception. This Catholic church seemed much newer, and still provided a calm, peaceful visit, but it didn’t quite hold the history and feel as the other church. However, it gave us an opportunity to see the everyday life of St. Kitts a little bit closer. Situated directly behind the church is a school. The students were out for lunch, and we said hello to some, who were dressed very nicely in matching school uniforms and rushing off to buy local fare from either the street vendors or the grocery store, or just spending time in the neighboring Independence Square, a one-block park that historically was the site of the slave market.
We followed the students, Trina and I laughing at our kids (and my) reaction to the large fish heads being sold on the street, and found ourselves in front of the grocery store. We were a bit tired and thirsty from our walk, so we jumped at the chance to buy some “local cuisine” in the shape of juice boxes. We chose the most unique we could find, sampling currant berry juice and peanut butter drinks. It wasn’t the cuisine we’d been eating on the cruise ship, but it was just as refreshing. Day 7 It’s our final port, St. Maarten (for the Dutch side) or St. Martin (for the French side). We wanted to get to Maho Beach on the Dutch side of the island, the place made infamous by so many youtube videos and travel shows we’d seen, showing off how close to the beach the planes have to land on the short 7500 foot runway.
We found our way to the beach by way of a bus. It takes a little longer than a taxi, but at $2 a person, it was much less expensive. The taxis and busses look the same, but we figured out which one to take by looking at the license plates, which prominently say either Bus or Taxi on them. We made it to Maho Beach after a 20-30 minute ride, and promptly put down our bags and set up our towels. Even with all the warning signs of possible jet blasts, we didn’t think too much of finding a spot right in the path of the landing planes, since we wanted to get the best pictures and videos possible. Planes frequently came in to land, some small, some larger, and we enjoyed every one, feeling so close to each plane it seemed like we could reach up and touch it. None gave us any trouble, although the noise of the larger ones required us to cover our ears. Once in a while, a smaller departing plane would back itself up close to the fence bordering the beach before taking off, but they didn’t cause much alarm. A couple who had arrived earlier in the day said they experienced one “that was interesting”, but gave no reason to move from the beach.
And then it happened. We were so excited to see the largest plane yet back up closer to the fence than any other we’d seen. We jumped up, with our phones and cameras at the ready, standing on the beach close to the fence, excited to see what this one was going to do. Then it revved up its engines.
I haven’t ever stood in front of a sandblaster, but now I know exactly how it would feel. The propulsion from the jet engines was so strong, and lasted for so long before the plane actually took off, that I couldn’t think of anything but finding a way to block myself from the torture. I couldn’t even come to enough presence of mind to think of walking sideways out of the blast zone. There I stood, trying to wrap a towel around me to block the barrage of tiny bullets in the form of blowing sand. People were running and screaming, and I suddenly realized towels and bags and hat and glasses were flying by us into the ocean. We all jumped into the water to save what we could, all while sand kept blasting into our skin, our ears, our hair. Finally, it ended. The few seconds it lasted seemed to have gone on for minutes, but I was finally able to lift my eyes and look around. I don’t think anyone, at least anyone dumb enough to sit in a blast zone, realized what it was going to be like. Least of all me and my dear family. We were covered in sand, but with only the loss of my sunglasses, we fared well. It was an experience I would never, ever recommend, but it was one we will remember the rest of our lives. Day 8
Then it was all over. Cruising is a fantastic way to visit so many different locations on one trip, while enjoying the ease of prepared meals and the same room every night. It’s been one of our kids favorite vacations so far, but I think and hope we’ll create many more memories for them. But we’d all do it again tomorrow if we could.