This cruise was a birthday gift to my BF of 3+ years. However, to be honest, it was as much for me as for him! This was his first cruise and, while he went willingly, a cruise is not likely the vacation he’d have chosen had he booked it himself. As for our ages…let’s just say we both have kids in college.
This was my 11th cruise. I began on Carnival, and then switched to Royal Caribbean. I booked this cruise in an effort to recreate the GREAT experience I had cruising on the Serenade of the Seas in 2010. I’m an obsessive and meticulous planner and will take this opportunity to thank all those who provided me with GREAT information on the boards which helped in my planning. (Particularly FamilyGoBoston, fellow Red Sox fans!)
BEFORE THE CRUISE:
I booked this cruise the day after the itinerary released - nearly two years in advance. Almost immediately, I began the search for San Juan accommodations for our pre-cruise stay. After hours (no really…HOURS) on the message boards and Trip Advisor, I settled on a historic B&B in Old San Juan called Villa Herencia. Due to its size (8 rooms), reasonable prices and central location, the inn tends to sell out a year in advance during the winter months. I called and made my reservation about 14 months in advance! (Did I mention I’m a little obsessive?)
We arrived at the hotel to check-in and were told that a group had booked the facility for a wedding the following day. The roof-top terrace was being decorated for the reception. Thinking we might feel ill-at-ease as non-participants in the festivities, they offered us an apartment just a block up the street. We asked to see both our options. The room they showed us at the inn was the SUITE, not the king-sized room I’d actually booked. (The suite’s location may have been slightly more removed from the wedding reception activities.) It was LOVELY! My initial reaction was that it would be hard to beat!! We then walked up the street to the apartment. Wow! For the same price as the king-sized room I’d booked, they were offering us a 3 bedroom/2 bathroom apartment. It was probably over 1,500 square feet, with a full kitchen, whirlpool tub in the master bath, televisions in every room (including the 60” flat screen in the living room), gorgeous tiled floors…all located across the street from the Cathedral! We took the apartment! I knew I’d never see an upgrade of that magnitude again! What a way to start the vacation!
The inn still invited us to enjoy the free breakfast; we just had to walk a block down the street. Breakfast was delicious! Wonderful pastries, granola, fruits, yogurt, etc. Villa Herencia allowed us to keep our luggage at the apartment until we’d finished sight-seeing. We departed Old San Juan via cab (the cab station was right on our corner, in front of El Convento), around 1:00. We knew the wedding was scheduled in the cathedral at 2:00, and we wanted to avoid the inevitable traffic.
OLD SAN JUAN: SIGHTSEEING PRIOR TO EMBARKATION
We decided to tour Old San Juan prior to boarding the ship. Our location was absolutely perfect – walking distance to EVERYTHING. Two blocks down the hill was the Gate to Old San Juan and walking just a couple blocks along the waterfront landed us at El Morro Fort.
We found Old San Juan lovely and so easy to navigate. The cobblestone streets and pastel Spanish-style buildings were charming – albeit a taxi-driver’s nightmare! So glad we had some time to spend there!
We arrived at the pier around 1:20 and were on board within 20-25 minutes. We’d forgotten to purchase our 2 bottles of wine in town, so we picked up some at the Duty-Free shop inside the cruise ship terminal. Not as good a deal as we’d have gotten from a local store, but better than the cost of a bottle on the ship!
We had an ocean-view cabin on Deck 3, #3564. It was the same location my daughter and I had when cruising on the Serenade in 2010. It was located just forward of mid-ship. With cabins above and below and storage closets on either side and across the hall, it was extremely quiet. While admittedly a long way from the pool and Windjammer on Deck 11, it was an easy walk to everything else! The Centrum was 1 deck up, the gangway was 1 deck down, MyTime Dining and the Promenade Deck were both just 2 decks up. We loved the location!
Our cabin steward was Ronaldo. He was the BEST cabin steward I’ve had in all the cruises I’ve taken. I told him the first day that we wanted towel animals and we got ‘em! And he gave us robes to use, even though we were not Diamond or in a suite. One night, in addition to towel swans with their necks forming a heart, he left us an origami heart featuring our names and an origami Jewel of the Seas polo shirt decorated with the ship name and date. He was absolutely awesome!
The ship was beautiful and in incredibly good shape. Given her age, she didn’t seem worn at all. I love all the glass on the Radiance Class ships, as well as the outdoor dining at the Windjammer. I like to consistently SEE the SEA when I’m on a cruise ship.
* Muster Drill was at 8PM.
* Both the 70s party and Quest were the night before our sea day. I didn’t like them putting both events on the same night. It meant having to miss the 70s After Party at the nightclub in order to play Quest.
* They didn’t have escargot the first night, but it seemed to be available all the other nights.
* Most of the time, Ronaldo replaced our wine glasses for us. When he neglected to do so, they could be easily obtained from the bar.
* There was a “White Night” when the suggested dinner attire is white. A poolside party later in the evening followed the same theme. I was aware of this event from reading reviews on CC, but not everyone had something white to wear, which kind of diminished the effect.
* You don’t have to sign out towels any more – which was nice. Unfortunately, some people abuse the privilege by using them to save seats. Or, they simply leave their towel laying around when departing the pool area, rather than tossing it into the used towel bins. The staff was great at scooping them up quickly, but I wish passengers would do a better job of returning the towels to the bins. It sad that - without a financial incentive – some people just seem to abandon common courtesy.
TORTOLA: VIRGIN GORDA AND THE BATHS
*Take-aways – You can’t do it all in one day and don’t rely on Smith’s Ferry Service!
In Tortola, we hit our first snag. I’d planned to take Smith’s ferry to Virgin Gorda, departing at 8:50 and returning at 3PM. We’d reserved a rental car on VG (Mahogany Rentals), feeling the 5+ hours on the island would give us time to see Gorda’s Peak, the Copper Mines and the Baths.
BEWARE: DO NOT rely on Smith’s Ferry schedule when planning your day! ONLY look at Speedy’s schedule and assume you’ll be using that service. Smith’s decided not to go to VG the day we were in port. They were OPEN and offering ferries to OTHER islands. They provided no explanation as to why they’d decided to avoid Virgin Gorda that day.
Speedy had a 9AM ferry, so our trip over wasn’t significantly impacted. But their return schedule offered a ferry at either 1PM or 4:30PM. Since we had to be on the ship by 5PM, the 4:30 seemed just TOO close for comfort. We ended up spending $60 to rent a car to go ONLY to the Baths – which probably would have cost us about $15 by taxi! We had a lovely time snorkeling at the Baths, but the much too expensive and abbreviated day was disappointing.
ST. MAARTEN: BOAT RENTAL FOR FISHING AND SELF-TOUR FROM THE WATER
*Take-aways – If you book something way in advance, double-check with the vendor before your trip!
We rented an 11’ Boston Whaler from Boathouse Boat Rentals (formerly Turtles) and spent the day sightseeing from the water. The boat came complete with fishing gear, a cooler for drinks and a map.
I’d paid the deposit for the boat in December. The owner somehow neglected to transfer my reservation to his new 2014 calendar when January rolled around. We arrived at the boat rental office to find it empty. A friendly local woman offered her cell phone to call the proprietor, who came out to meet us. He offered us a discounted price, given our late start, but once again we were unable to fit in everything we planned. We boated over to Marigot, where we tied up the boat to do some sight-seeing by foot and had crepes at a waterfront French restaurant. We then boated around the harbor for some unsuccessful fishing before returning to the rental office. We had hoped to also visit Cupecoy Beach, but ran out of time.
ST. KITTS: ISLAND TOUR WITH ROYSTON
*Take-aways – St. Kitts is an incredibly beautiful island and Royston is a fantastic guide!
We toured the island with Royston, along with several passengers from our roll call. Royston tours in a van without windows, which provides WONDERFUL photo opportunities! The breeze was wonderful and we never felt like we needed air conditioning. We visited Wingfield Plantation, a former sugar and rum processing location associated with Christopher Jefferson - an ancestor of President Thomas Jefferson. The next stop was Romney Manor and the Caribelle Batik. I’d been there on a prior visit. What a lovely location! The demonstration of the dying process was brief and interesting. From there it was on to the Brimstone Fort. On the way to the Black Rocks, Royston stopped at a sugar cane field and cut down several stalks. He explained that he feeds it to the donkeys near the Black Rocks. When they saw his van approaching, they immediately started to bray – knowing sugar cane was coming! We then drove to Timothy Hill, where the views were incredible. Royston picked us up some delicious BBQ chicken from a local street vendor, which we ate at a nearly deserted beach. We were back at the pier around 3:45 for our 5PM all-aboard. What a great day! Royston was a great host and guide.
DOMINICA: BUMPIING TOURS ROSEAU VALLEY TOUR
*Take-aways – You cannot go wrong with Bumpiing Tours. Levi is THE BEST!!
We did the Roseau Valley Tour with Levi from Bumpiing Tours. I’d done this tour in 2010, on a cruise with my daughter. We were both so taken with Levi, that I didn’t give BF a chance to choose from any excursions NOT offered by Bumpiing Tours! He chose the Roseau Valley Tour and I had no problem repeating the experience!
Our first stop was Champagne Beach for snorkeling. Levi was kind enough to carry people’s shoes back to the beach, so we didn’t have to cross the rocky beach barefoot to put on our flippers. Snorkeling was excellent – even better than at the Baths!
Next stop was Titou Gorge. Levi mentioned that he never WALKS into the cold water, but prefers to JUMP from the top of the ridge. That constituted about a 30 foot drop through a crevice between the stone-faced walls that was only about 6- or 8-feet wide. Two of us decided to follow suit and took the plunge. It was an enormous thrill! At 54-years-old, I’ll likely never do something like that again, but what a memory…what an adventure!
Next stop was Trafalgar Falls, followed by a walk out to the hot mineral springs. The falls are amazing and the hot springs felt great after the cold water at the gorge!
Levi provided a tour to other points of interests before returning us to the ship around 3:15. We spent some time shopping in the little local marketplace (I prefer to buy my souvenirs at these less developed islands, where the residents really rely on the tourist industry), before boarding the ship.
BARBADOS: HARRISON CAVES
*Take-aways – Kind of expensive, but still better to go through the ship.
In Barbados we opted for the only ship-sponsored excursion on this trip, Harrison Caves. I’d visited Hato Caves in Curacao on a previous cruise and thoroughly enjoyed it. Underground caverns are such a departure from other cruise-ship excursions. I researched doing the caves on our own, but the cost of the taxi was high and I read that the caves give preference to tours. If you arrive individually, you’ll likely have to wait. So we booked through the ship. The caves are interesting and beautiful and a fun change of pace for a Caribbean vacation.
We’d intended to head back out after lunch and spend some time at the beach, but decided it would be too rushed. We just enjoyed the nearly empty ship and played some mini-golf, shuffleboard and tried out the self-leveling pool tables.
*Take-away – Where have all these people been?
The last day was the only sea day in our itinerary and the only day we noticed there were more than a handful of other people on the ship with us. It’s incredible how 2,500 people can spread themselves out so much that – wherever you go on the ship – there are only a handful of people (if any) there. The sea day was the exception. Yes, it’s hard to find a chair by the main pool – although we lucked into them in the Solarium Pool! Big events like the Belly Flop contest were well-attended.
We LOVED the Jewel. I have found the smaller ships to feel LESS crowded than the larger ones. Given that I prefer port-intensive itineraries, things the ice rink and FlowRider are never missed.
We left the ship with two NextCruise certificates in hand – purchased BEFORE the new rules rendered them relatively worthless – and we WILL be back!