On any given day, cruisers are walking off ships in ports all over the world to explore -- by bus tours and taxis, catamarans and glass-bottom boats, on zip lines and horseback, and, as I discovered recently, even running.
A cruise themed around running? I know. I, too, assumed only serious running enthusiasts would enjoy such a thing. However, after a seven day "Cruise to Run" aboard Caribbean Princess, I learned that cruising to run appealed not just to those of us who run often, but also to those who walk, jog/walk, and, mostly, to those looking for a unique way to explore an island.
The idea originated with Jerry Friesen, a Canadian race director and avid runner who was reluctant to cruise, although his wife Jody had always wanted to try one. Jerry was out running one icy-cold January day and thought of a way to make them both happy. He would organize a different kind of event, not a 5k or a triathlon (as he had done many times in the past), but a multi-day theme cruise for people who enjoy explorations on foot.
He envisioned routes that offered interesting sites, varied in distance, and could be traversed by both turtles and hares. They picked Caribbean Princess for its itinerary and took a planning cruise in 2006. By the end of it, Jerry and Jody had created a Southern Caribbean itinerary with a bit more up its sleeve than bus tours and beaches.
Cruise to Run, the Friesens' annual event, would offer scenic routes on Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua, St. Thomas and St. Maarten (Tortola replaced St. Maarten in year two), plus onboard activities that included motivational speakers and meet-and-mingle gatherings. The only thing they didn't have yet, but hoped for, was that intangible thing that all good theme cruises offer: the camaraderie that comes from sharing a passion with a group of like-minded others.
The first Cruise to Run set sail in early 2007 with 181 (mostly Canadian) participants. Two years later, our February 2009 cruise included over 300 participants, hailing from 27 U.S. states, Canada, England and Bermuda.
I was dying to try it. I had always wanted to run in port but never did, for safety reasons and because I had no idea where to go or how far it would be.
And as for my traveling companions, I was curious to see if my husband, Tim (who believes running is meant for a basketball court), would enjoy the trip too, as well as our sons, ages 6 and 12.
The Starting Line
It's hard to miss the distinctive looking Caribbean Princess when you pull into port. If it were a car, the ship would be a sporty stretch limo with a rear spoiler and oversized side mirrors -- perhaps a good match for this type of endeavor.
Our stateroom was one of Princess' well-designed mini-suites with a balcony. The bathroom had a full-size tub/shower and was across from a long roomy closet that provided privacy from the remainder of the stateroom. It was a design I came to appreciate by the end of the week, since my older son, Cameron, and I were able to wake early, dress and sneak out to prepare for a run without waking the rest of our family.
The suite also had a comfortable queen bed, a full-size sofa bed in the sitting area and a twin that folded down from the ceiling above, making it easy to give each son his own space. A large curved cabinet straddled the midsection of the room, offering plenty of shelf storage and an empty mini-fridge to keep our stock of water bottles.
Since we had a night onboard and then a full day at sea before the first run, we devoted much of it to exploring the ship. Our favorite find was one of the features Caribbean Princess is best known for -- its Movies Under the Stars screen, showing movies, concerts and major sporting events, like the Super Bowl, which happened to take place on the first night of our sailing.
As we reclined on cushioned poolside loungers, our older son, Cameron, said, “This is the coolest way to watch the Super Bowl!” Or anything else for that matter, with the stars up above, unlimited amounts of popcorn and a never-empty cup thanks to the excellent service.
Day at Sea: The Meet and Greet
If you've ever participated in a 5K, you know that most race check-ins typically involve a wait in line, collection of a goody bag and a trip back home (or dash to the car to store said bag), all with little interaction with fellow participants. This check-in was completely different.
Participants received nametags. They introduced themselves. Repeaters chatted like old friends and laughed at images of themselves from the previous year's slideshow. And many people stopped to swap race stories over the T-shirt exchange table -- a place where you could bring any shirt from any race in the world and swap it for another.
We met the Penns, fellow Marylanders, and right there, in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, learned about a running group we hadn't known about back home.
And we began to hear stories about some of the other participants, including non-runners turned converts, like Hans Gorter and his wife Nelleke Van Der Vliet. She was a runner. He wasn't, but he decided to give the runs a try anyway, half walking, half jogging an earlier Cruise to Run. Apparently by the end of the cruise he was hooked, so he went home and trained (and later completed) his first half marathon.
The only downside, for us, and we half-expected it since it wasn't a school break week, was that there were less than a handful of children participating. My older son was quick to point that out, and also quick to adapt, since he was, after all, missing school for a week of running, reading and exploring.
My own explorations included a peek in the spacious and well-stocked fitness center. This time though, I wasn't going to spend much time on the treadmills because my runs, at long last, would be in the ports of call! And now I not only had routes in each port, there'd be lots of company too.
Road Racing Barbados Style: 5K Race and Run with Local Kids
The 10 a.m. race start in Barbados was the latest on the week's schedule, which meant that Tim, Cameron and I would get to run together while Colin attended the Princess Pelican kids' program.
Just a few steps off the ship and we felt the challenge of the late start: the sauna-like heat. Barbados was one of two islands on our itinerary with a timed race and the kind of start area you might envision at any major race, complete with timing chips, a tented first-aid station, plus all the water and snacks a person could want after a run under the hot Caribbean sun.
There were a few extra tents, too. One sold Barbados Cruise to Run shirts, the proceeds of which would go to help the island buy a series race clock for its own Run Barbados events. And the second had a mound of running shoes beneath it, all donated by members of our group as part of Cruise to Run's Runners Give Back Program. I watched a few runners help local kids pick out a pair of shoes and it was hard to tell who was enjoying the experience more, the kids receiving the shoes or the runners sharing their passion for the sport.
Once laced up, the lanky kids lined up at the start with our convivial crowd. A man near us joked, “Just want to warn you all, I burp and fart when I run,” which cleared a slightly wider berth for himself. When the gun went off, we jogged past traffic that was being held up at a roundabout to clear the route, and it was such a treat to run real (not treadmill) miles past stores, office buildings, a stretch of land that overlooked Barbados's creamy white-sand beaches and people. Especially the people.
Instead of looking annoyed at the traffic holdup we caused, drivers stuck their heads out of windows, calling out “keep going” or “you're almost there.” Barbadians out shopping waved. Runners passed water bottles to the kids that had joined us. A smattering of locals not only lined the route, but also jumped in to join us for a few paces, including a city maintenance worker, broom and all.
The whole experience reminded me of some of the things I love best about the sport of running. No extensive coaching is required, nor is there any need for pre-reserved court times or massive investment in expensive equipment. There's not even a minimum speed or ability level to participate. The only requirement to get oneself out there is desire.
Later that afternoon, buses took our group to sandy pink Carlisle Beach for a beach party and swim, as part of the Cruise to Run package. Some kayaked, some ambitious souls swam a good stretch into the ocean, and some, like us, just meandered between beach chairs and wading in the water. By the end of the day, we realized we had caught a nice glimpse of Barbados without the expense of a shore excursion.
Mind and Body Motivation
Most theme cruises include presentations by well-known speakers in that field or subject area. Cruise to Run was no different, offering a trio of inspiring athletes, including triathlete Lisa Bentley. She inspired the crowd with her story of how a woman diagnosed with cystic fibrosis could go on to become an 11-time Ironman champion. Dick Beardsley, best known for his 1982 “Duel in the Sun” Boston Marathon with Alberto Salazar, told a story of perseverance, both in running and in overcoming an addiction to pain medication, which left me rethinking what it means to face adversity.
While Lisa and Dick left the crowd inspired on their respective nights, Bart Yasso, author of "My Life on the Run," had us laughing with his tales (complete with slideshow) of races where most of the spectators were penguins and polar bears, where the Taj Mahal served as a finish line, and where fanny packs were the only article of clothing on runners in a race called “Bare Buns.”
St. Lucia: 8K Fun Run to the Vigie Lighthouse
St. Lucia was our most challenging run of the cruise for more reasons than one. First off, our ship had unexpectedly docked on the opposite side of the port from where it was being held, adding an extra half mile to our 8k and some last-minute scrambling to get the run started from the high-traffic location (apparently Royal Caribbean's Serenade of the Seas had docked in "our" spot).
The confusion would have been easily manageable if it were just Tim and I, but Cameron decided to join me instead that morning for the longest distance he had ever run, our second challenge.
Police motorcycles led the first 1.5 kilometers. After that, we ran alongside a two-lane road that twisted through town and down and around a fenced-in airport runway, and I fretted like a mother hen. “Cameron, be careful, that's too close to the cars. Here, run on the inside!” Or, “Cameron, watch out. That patch of grass is muddy, and you'll twist your ankle.”
As if he were picking up on my anxiety, Cameron began to complain about the heat, question why he came on this cross-country-like run…and, horrors to my ears, whether or not he even liked running.
I quickly toned down my fretting and began to distract him with more pleasant observations about the island. All crankiness (mine as well as his) came to a halt as we ran up through a little vertical village, filled with flowering bushes, pretty houses and the scent of salty air. When we got to the top there was a lighthouse and a patch of hillside carpeted by our fellow runners because everyone stopped to take a break up there, drink water, and gaze out at the lush green mountains on the horizon and the harbors below shimmering in the morning sun.
The village was definitely a game changer. As we made our way back to the ship, Cameron told me how much he loved the run no less than five times, how pretty St. Lucia looked from the lighthouse and how great he felt to have tackled the 8K+ distance. I think a runner was born.
And a good thing, too, because by the time we returned, we had to sprint back to our stateroom, shower quickly and sprint back out to the port to meet the guide we hired for the day. (A downside of the long run in St. Lucia is that by the time we returned, several of the ship's shore tours had already left for the day.)
You can still catch a private tour though, as we did, and then cater it to the sights you want to see. We drove for hours making stops along the way to see a banana plantation, sample local foods, smell the sulphur from the “drive-in volcano,” take a dip in a waterfall and, lastly, have a brief beach stop near the majestic twin peak Piton mountains.
Since several St. Lucians speak French, I practiced a few phrases with our driver as we began our journey back to the ship, confirmed that bonne nuit meant goodnight, then fell promptly asleep for the next hour. Running in the heat took more out of me than I anticipated, but it was nothing a good nap in a bumpy van couldn't cure.
Antigua: 13K to Fort Barrington Plus Afternoon Hash Run
My husband and I decided to forgo the day's runs and let the kids sleep in before heading out to explore Antigua's beaches. Over breakfast we learned others were sitting this one out, too, to rest knees or give other sore body parts a rest.
Later that day, though, we heard stories from those who partook. The group had met at the dock at 8 a.m. for a scenic run around the harbor and to the trail that led to Fort Barrington, a giant semicircular stone fort that overlooks the approach to St. John's Harbour. Those looking to cut the run short took a taxi out to the fort and just ran back.
Antigua was the one port of call with two organized runs, the second being the afternoon “Hash Run.” This is an activity originally designed by the military to combat training boredom on base. In a “hash,” someone pre-marks a trail off an intersection, only runners don't know which path is marked until they run down it a ways. If they see an “X” they went the wrong way. If they pick the trail marked with a bull's-eye, they yell out “on on” and everyone else follows.
Apparently it has been said that “hashers” are drinkers with a running problem. And from what I heard later in the day, those that attended were happy to comply with this image -- chugging beers for faux punishments at the post-race beach party (hence not appropriate for our kids…no matter how many beer commercials they had just seen during the Superbowl).
One thing that I liked about this type of theme cruise was that you can participate in as many -- or as few -- of the activities as you want. After all, it is a vacation! On our part, we took it easy and enjoyed a few games of basketball on the ship's deck, a BMX bike show in the ship's piazza, and a jaunt to build sandcastles on one of Antigua's many beautiful beaches.
A Word About Food
Some say cruising can put five pounds on a person. That was definitely not the case with this trip. The good thing about running 20+ miles in a week is you need to eat well.
And eat well we did. We devoured post-run breakfast buffets, enjoyed paninis and fresh baked cookies at The International Café, and indulged in Italian food not once but several nights in the ship's wonderful Sabatini's. At Sabatini's, guests only order a main course. Everything else is brought out to sample, from delicious deviled crab cakes to calamari, freshly baked pizzas and numerous other antipasti. It was carbo-loading at its best.
Tortola: Challenge the Mountain 6K
This aptly titled outing was no run; it was a 947-foot hike up a hill that our whole family tried to tackle. (Colin had announced the previous night that he was tired of being left behind and he too wanted to "run.") And on this day I discovered that while I might still be able to beat Cameron on a flat-course, he could literally leave me in the dust when it came to hills. In fact, I wasn't running one bit, I was walking up the hill, and he was like a horse in a starting gate, itching to move forward faster. I told him to go ahead and wait for us at the top and as he cruised ahead on his own, I heard people calling out to him, “You go, young legs!”
Colin, Tim and I continued to follow behind, I chatting with our fellow climbers and poor Tim with Colin on his shoulders for parts of it. We caught up with Cameron at the top to enjoy the breathtaking 360-degree views of the crystal blue water and the islands that dotted the sea. It was easy to see why photographers and film producers would choose this area as a setting for everything from a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue to feature films like "The Deep."
A pattern was emerging: run, walk, hike or explore in the morning, then eat, rest and relax on a beach in the afternoon. While we weren't seeing as many indoor sites or museums, or trying to cover an entire island in one day, as we might have on another trip, we were getting lots of fresh air and enjoying nature, great vistas and simple conversations with people over exercise and sun.
St. Thomas: 5K Prediction Run
Unlike Barbados, the winners of this timed race were not the fastest, but those male and female runners who predicted their finishing time most accurately. The trick is that we had to make our prediction on the first morning of the cruise (not knowing how much or little cruising, eating and running in the hot humid Caribbean would impact our times later in the week). No watches were allowed during this race.
While it was fun to try to predict our finishing times and then wonder if we were close, the highlight for us on this race was the people-watching because this field of runners included three Virgin Island Olympians plus members of our group dressed in some unusual costumes.
For example, one of our group's fastest and most charming male runners dressed in a pink tutu and running shoes, then waved his wand as he sashayed quickly through St. Thomas. Another dressed in a T-shirt and shorts that looked like a tux.
Colin and Tim ran part of the race then hung out at the post-race party watching the fastest runners come in, while Cameron and I ran one of our fastest times together.
The kids asked to spend our last afternoon at the pool and at the children's program so they could play a few video games. While they were at the children's program, Tim and I relaxed in the ship's heavenly Sanctuary, a quiet adults-only retreat area with thick-cushioned lounge chairs that are nicely shaded by a canopy. Better still are the Serenity Stewards that bring you things like cucumber water and Bose headphones with pre-loaded music. It was the perfect place to rest a tired body.
I began to pontificate to Tim on my newest realization on why I love running, but then I realized he wasn't listening to a word that I said. He was out cold. Fast asleep and snoring, probably from a week's worth of nights out on the ship at comedy shows and the casino and early mornings spent running.
At the final gathering, everyone chatted like old friends as they collected participant medals and watched the slideshow, this time of themselves participating in the week's events on the TV screens above. I told Cameron, no less than five times, how happy I was to have shared this experience with him.
The Finish Line
While many cruises deliver on the promise of fun and relaxation, my running cruise delivered something more: inspiration, a chance to slow my daily pace (in everything but my runs) and the challenge to enjoy life one mile at a time.
If you're looking for all professionally timed competitive racing with wide-open spaces for running, you won't find it here, but if you want to experience the Caribbean on foot, then this is a trip well worth taking.
--by Christine Koubek, Cruise Critic Contributor
Family photo courtesy of Christine Koubek. Barbados and St. Thomas photos courtesy of Jerry Friesen. Princess ship photos courtesy of Cruise Critic member DonMar. St. Lucia photo courtesy of St. Lucia Tourism.