Port and Shore Excursions
Three large cruise ships were berthed together at St Johns cruise port - towering over the little town. It does not take too long to mooch around the shops here. We grabbed places on a decrepit minibus, which we dubbed Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Tours - driver Mr Wilmouth Casey, bless him! He was actually more obliging than his clapped out vehicle, but it got us around. We drove across the island through numerous quaint villages in lush countryside to visit Falmouth Harbour, Shirley Heights (great views) and the historic Nelson's Dockyard on the South Coast. My only regret was that there was insufficient time to explore inside the various buildings. We continued on through rain forest to the West Coast, stopping off at the quiet and lovely Darkwood Beach for a relaxing swim. Then back to port in good time for our sail-away.
Nice small town on the Southern tip of USA - we took the Old Town Trolly Tour from near the cruise pier, because we had an elderly and infirm person with us. We booked on-line in advance to gain a small discount. However, if we were to visit again we would simply walk from the pier through the town centre to the Southernmost Point - the trolly bus goes all around the island, most of which is of little interest. The town itself is rather quirky and alternative, but has a unique character and interesting shops and bars, quite unlike the rest of Florida.
We were looking forward to what we thought would be the most exotic destination on our cruise - oh boy, were we disappointed! We landed by tender at Coxen Hole, an NCL ship having taken the only berth. We had prearranged with friends a private driver and guide for a group of 5. The excursion was booked through Island Excursions and sub-contracted to Roatan Cruise Excursions. Modern, clean vehicle. But Roatan has little to offer unless you want to do zip-lining (we didn't!). We visited a modern hotel and condo development, Parrot Tree, which in hindsight offered the best option for a peaceful swim, even had we to pay for it. However, we pressed on through the nondescript town of French Harbour, back through Coxen Hole and over the spine of the island - very green, but seeing nothing to remark on - then dropped down to a village called West End that was a boaty place - quite nice. Finally we went to what we were told was the finest beach on the island - West Bay. The problem was the entire population of two cruise ships had descended upon it too! We don't like noisy crowded beaches, even if there are palm trees, the sea is blue and the sun is shining. And that was it - we returned to ship asking: well, what was that all about!
We took the regular excursion bus ($20) from outside the Old City dock and had a quick introduction to SJ, passing by the Academia area before briefly stopping by the beach at Concado. Then the bus returned to the Capitol Building in the Old City before stopping at San Cristobal Fortress for a 30 mins visit. The bus then continued on to La Muralla for a view over San Felipe Fortress/ El Morro, before dropping us off at Plaza de Colon for shopping. We took this bus because it enabled my infirm sister to see something of the city. However, all the Old City sites and the shops can be easily accessed on foot - a much more atmospheric experience. We did this in the afternoon and a walk from San Cristobal to San Felipe/El Morro is highly recommended, as is a visit to the Fortress. Watch out for glorious sunsets over the mouth of SJ Harbour. Rating of Old City - 4.5*
Saint Maarten / Saint-Martin - Ours was one of six cruise ships moored at the piers of Philipsburg - Hence some 18,000 people disgorged themselves onto an island that has a resident population of just 38,000! This happens frequently and the supposed main attraction is duty free shopping. We pre-arranged a private car with driver/guide for 5 with Sint Maarten Taxi Association - our first choice was already booked up. Our island tour was a little disrupted by the fact that our friends wanted to buy some jewellery in Philipsburg first, with the need to return there later in the day to collect the items.
Once we got on the road there was a lot of traffic - too much for the local infrastructure. Our driver was willing enough, but not a very good guide and we didn't really know where we were going. We had a brief swim at Dawn Beach before crossing the border from the Dutch to French sector of the island. Marigot, main town of the French part was unremarkable and rather expensive, so we carried on back into the Dutch half. We headed for Maho Beach on the end of the runway of Princess Juliana Airport. I think the entire passenger lists of two cruise ships were squeezed in here! The attraction at this time of day is that there are a lot of flights arriving from North America and Europe and they virtually scrape the top of your head as they fly in over the beach to land. My enduring memory is the lungfuls of jet engine exhaust I was forced to inhale from each landing plane! Later in the afternoon the reverse occurs when folk on the beach get blasted into the sea by each aircraft taking off - fortunately we had long-escaped before then.
The prices in Philipsburg are not that special by my reckoning - perhaps the absence of sales tax is all that differentiates them from US prices. There is plenty of jewellery and lots of expensive watches, but it is not the place to go if you want something more modest, or if you are looking for a plain gold ring, as I was. From memory St Thomas is far better: for shopping, for scenery, for beaches and for the organisation of sightseeing. We were very disappointed in Sint Maarten.