Cruise from January 27, 2008 to February 3, 2008
We arrived a day early on January 26th and stayed at the El Canario by the Lagoon in the Condado district in San Juan. We took a cab from the airport to the hotel. It wasn't very clear what to do at the airport to catch a cab. There was a long line of people waiting at some kind of kiosk, which I think were people getting taxis. We walked outside to a sign that said taxis and flagged an empty taxi as it drove by. The guy stopped and took us to our hotel. It was about $20 for the 4 of us with our bags.
El Canario was one of the cheapest options we could find for San Juan. Trip Advisor reviews were generally good for this hotel, which is why we booked this hotel. You can tell that the hotel is an older building but the rooms were decent and clean. We had a small fridge in the room and even a balcony. No hairdryers though. A continental breakfast was included. If you are looking for a decent, clean, no frills place to stay pre-cruise, I would recommend El Canario by the Lagoon. The only complaint was that the desk clerk upon check in wasn't very friendly at all and seemed like we were interrupting him to ask a few questions.
The hotel is just one block away from the beach and a small park. We arrived at dinnertime and went to eat at Café Angel right up on Ashford St and only a couple minute walk from the hotel. Café Angel was very good and offered Puerto Rican food (like mofongo). Food prices were reasonable but the bar prices were a bit high.
That evening, the tourism board in Puerto Rico was offering a free cultural dance and song show in the park. We watched a bit of the show and enjoyed it. Was a very nice, unexpected surprise for us.
In the morning, we walked around the area a bit. There is a Walgreens nearby so if you forgot any drug items or general items, you pick them up here. We also walked along the beach. The waves were large and there were many people body surfing.
We left to hotel at about 11:30 the day of the cruise. It cost about $20 for the four of us and our bags to get to the pier. The pier was a bit busy and there were porters swarming us. From experience, these people will expect tips if they handle your bags. The first time we cruised, we thought they worked for the cruise line. They don't. If you like the help of porters, it may be worth it for them to handle your bags. If you are like us and can handle your own bags, then you'll save a few dollars.
Once in the terminal, it wasn't very busy. We checked our bags and got our sail and sign cards very quickly. We sat in the waiting area where we could drink some free alcohol samples, buy a bottle or two of booze, or try one of their games. The duty free store in the terminal area only has hard alcohol. My husband bought a 6 pack of beer at a store in the Condado district and packed that before we left. We also picked up a bottle of rum at the duty free and packed that in our carry on. The people working in the duty free even tell you to bring it on the ship. We had no problems bringing the beer or rum on board.
We boarded at about 1:00 and got lunch up on lido deck. We were just happy to be on board the ship and have our vacation start that we just stayed on the ship. Dinner that night was open seating. Muster drill was at about 9:00.
The Ship: Destiny is an older, refurbished ship. Overall, I thought she still looked great. The crew was always cleaning something. There were spots of wear and tear - some bulbs burnt out, edges of the table legs worn, some seat cushions a little worn looking but what do you expect when you have 1000's of guests coming through each month. I think where the Destiny shows her age the most is the staterooms. My parent's vanity lights were half burnt out (not the bulbs) and their balcony light didn't work. But, overall, our rooms were just fine and I liked the ship's décor. The staff on the ship also always said hello or good morning/afternoon.
We had an interior room and our room was fine. The only issue we had was that the safe wouldn't open for us even though we were using the correct card. We called the purser's deck and they had someone come up within 5 minutes. Very prompt!
We did learn that the Destiny is going in dry dock this September and will be doing 4 and 5 day cruises afterwards. I am guessing that a lot of these little wear and tear items will be taken care of in dry dock.
The Food: I enjoyed the food on the Destiny. We ate breakfast sometimes on Lido and sometimes in the dining room. We weren't usually on board for lunch. And we always had dinner in the dining room. As far as the Lido deck goes, it's a buffet and I do not have as high expectations for a buffet. As far as buffets go, I thought the food was good. We had pizza, Chinese, a deli sandwich, and burgers and fries also at various times. No complaints. I've always enjoyed the food in the dining room and our waiters were great! Some dishes were not as good as others but overall, very good. We always ordered off the regular menu and not the alternative selections.
We brought aboard a small, collapsible cooler and zip top baggies (as suggested here on Cruise Critic!) and was glad we did. We had brought onboard a couple of bottle of water and would refill those each day with water or juice or iced tea. We would also pack a lunch to take with us. In the morning on Lido, there are a couple things you can make a sandwich with. They have slices of ham and cheese. Of course there is bacon, sausage, and breakfast ham on the main buffet. For bread, they have bagels, toast, and croissants that make good sandwiches. I used some ham and cheese with orange marmalade on a bagel one day for a sandwich and that was very good. My husband then thought of getting a calzone from the pizza counter and that was great for taking ashore for lunch. He also thought of ordering hard-boiled eggs in the dining room to take ashore as well. And, as suggested on the boards, you can get a sandwich from the NY deli or through room service to pack as well. I believe each floor has a vending room where you can get ice to put in baggies for a small, collapsible cooler. We were on the 6th floor and filled a baggie with ice in the vending room for our cooler. Worked great! Our drinks kept cold and our sandwiches or calzones stayed cool too.
Entertainment: We saw both variety shows and the magician. Thought all were good and enjoyed them. I enjoyed the bands and singers in the lounges as well. We even came in 2nd place in the ship's Amazing Race. The cruise director (Darcy) wasn't as good as some of the others we had.
St. Thomas: We booked a tour with Godfrey for $25 pp. He would pick you up at the pier at 9, 10, or 11 and take you to downtown for shopping. He then picked everyone up at noon to take people for a little driving tour around the island, which included a stop at mountaintop. After the approximately 2-hour tour, we had the choice of going to Magen's Bay, Coki Beach, or Sapphire Beach. We chose Sapphire and did some snorkeling, which was pretty good. There were only 2 ships in St. Thomas (including us) and I thought the downtown streets and the beach had quite a lot of people. I'd hate to see what it's like when there are more ships. Godfrey was great and told us a lot about the island. Well worth the $25 pp to take us around. My mom and dad had been to St. Thomas 4 times and my mom said she learned more on the tour we took than she has ever had on any previous trip. Godfrey had everyone back to the ship right on time. The only complaint is that my mom and husband said the restrooms at Sapphire were filthy. My husband even said he went in the bathroom with his sandals and wished he had closed toed shoes. This is a great stop to get booze. Make sure you grab a local, Virgin Island alcohol to increase your duty free limit from 1 bottle to 5 bottles. Our local pick was the Cruzan rum. They had some of the best prices for alcohol.
Dominica: We booked a tour with Beno. We wanted to go to some places not listed on his regular tours so we had a private tour with just the four of us. We wanted to stop by Mr. Nice's fruit stand, soak in the hot springs at Screw's Spa, and snorkel at Champagne Reef. Since we had a private tour, Beno had Joseph take us as Beno had to take people on his prearranged tours. We were charged $62 pp plus the entrance fee to Screw's Spa ($10 each) and a fee for Champagne Reef ($2 each). Joseph took us on the scenic route first to Mr. Nice's. The rainforest is amazing and beautiful. On the way, he stopped by "the American lady's" house. She had some fresh cinnamon bundles for sale for a $1. Joseph even stopped a couple of times to point out some things like a coffee tree. He even got us a coffee fruit to try. He said to bite into it to break the skin and then suck it. It was surprisingly sweet!
Mr. Nice's was great! Mr. Nice does not charge anything and has all sorts of fruit to eat. He had fresh pineapple, oranges, coconut, coconut candy, roasted cocoa beans and bananas. You can eat as much as you want and tip (if you want) as much as you want. Great stop.
Then we went to Screw's Spa. This was the highlight. There are toilets and changing rooms to use at Screw's Spa. They looked rustic (cloth for 'doors') but he had modern toilets with plumbing and was clean. My mom said that his restrooms were way nicer than at Sapphire Beach. There are some rock stairs to climb down to get to the sulfur pools so if you have difficulties with stairs, do not do this. There are 4 pools to get in; two really warm ones and two that were 'cooler'. Soaking in the pools was wonderful! We wanted to sit there all day. If we ever go back to Dominica, we'd go back here for sure. After Screw's Spa, we were off to Champagne Reef. There is a nice boardwalk to walk down to reach the area where you get into the water. This beach is rocky so getting into the water was a bit tricky. The waves are also slightly strong here so be sure you are a good swimmer and brings fins (snorkel equipment available for rental at the entrance). It would be nice if they eventually put in a dock with a ladder to make getting in and out of the water easier. This was a pretty good snorkel. We got back in time to shop around with the vendors. We didn't find much at all and they all seemed to sell the same kind of things. You can find cinnamon here as well as fresh nutmeg.
Barbados: We did the ship's coast-to-coast tour. The bus took us to Bathsheba and to the top of some hilltop, not sure what that was called. Along the way, the driver told us all sorts of info. Was a decent tour and Bathsheba was very nice as well as the view from the hilltop. Rum punch was included on the tour at the hilltop. There were picnic tables at the hilltop so we ate our lunch there. When we got back to the pier, we caught a taxi to take us to the Mt. Gay Rum factory. We learned that you should pick up a taxi at the taxi area and not one that was driving out of the pier area. We got in a taxi that was on his way out and the pier security officer and our cab driver got in an argument. I guess he wasn't authorized to pick up passengers in the pier area. We were guessing he dropped someone off, which would explain why he was in the area. We did end up with the same cab driver and it cost $12 for the 4 of us to get to Mr. Gay. We did the tour at Mt. Gay ($7 each). During the tour, you get to taste three of their rums. If you want to purchase Mt. Gay rum, do it here. They have the best prices, as they should! Afterwards, we walked across the street to what I think is Brandon's beach. There was no one there except a couple local guys bringing in their boat. You can see that there appeared to be rocks under the water and the guys advised us to swim in the clear areas (areas where you see no rocks) as there are poisonous fish that may bite you in the rocks. There was a nice clear spot where we swam. A local family came with their little boy to swim too. There are no facilities there. We walked back to the pier (maybe 1.5 miles). There are plenty of shops at the pier to shop in.
St. Kitts: This appeared to be the 'wealthiest' of the ports. In the previous ports, you could see many areas where the people are quite poor but here, there wasn't much that we saw. I think many people liked it here because of that. Honestly, that kind of thing doesn't bother me. I just like to see each place and experience what it's like around each island. We had booked a tour with Thenford Grey (Grey's tours). There was some strong wind overnight that slowed the ship down so we were about 45 minutes late but we met with Thenford with no problems. He charged $40 pp and took us to Romney Manor/Caribelle Batik, Brimstone fort, a stop at the top of the pass, and ended at a beach. Romney Manor is basically a botanical garden and it is beautiful! It got very busy here, as this seems to be a stop on every tour guides list. The batik store got very crowded but the clothing was nice. It might be a little pricier than some others though. A little girl's dress was $30, a man's cabana shirt was $45, and a tank top or t-shirt was $20. Next was Brimstone hill. I was thinking that going to an old fort might not be up my alley but this was a beautiful stop. The fort was amazing and the views were spectacular. Definitely a place to see. On the way to the beach, we stopped at this nice overlook point for a few nice pictures. Also, this area had a bunch of free-range cows and goats as well as wild monkeys. The cows and goats all belong to someone. They just roam free until the owner wants the animal. And ended at Cockleshell beach. There was a place to eat (a bit expensive), restrooms, and beach chairs available at no cost. We got back in time to shop a bit but not for long. There are lots of shops in the pier area though.
La Romana: We got to La Romana on time and after we docked, it didn't appear that there is much right off the ship. We spoke to some people on the ship and were advised to not walk at night and that walking during the day would be fine. There is pretty much nothing right off the ship. There is this building that has, well, I'm not sure what it has. There are some baseball fields and a walking/running track nearby as well. There is an area where you pick up shuttles and an area where you can get a taxi. Unlike other ports where there are tour companies swarming hoping to get your business, there are none here. This port has not been developed for tourists and I don't think there are any local tour companies. Also be aware that the people in town may not speak English and that most of the prices are in pesos (I think 30 pesos to $1). This dock was built by Caso de Campo, which is the resort where Altos de Chavon is. I also understand that Caso de Campo owns most of the area around the port. Remember that Caso de Campo is a resort and Altos de Chavon is located within the resort. Cruise guests can use the facilities at the resort (for a fee? I don't know). I am guessing that the resort wanted to bring in cruise passengers hoping to entice them in to a resort vacation. Caso de Campo is beautiful.
The first night we went to the Kandela show at Caso de Campo/Altos de Chavon. There are several tour times. The show starts at 9:00 and if you want to look around Altos de Chavon before the show, book an earlier departure time. If you don't want to shop around, book the 8:30 departure. It was dark so I couldn't see much. It didn't appear to be any kind of shops but then again, I may have missed them because of the darkness. Things also seemed very spread out within Caso de Campo. It took about 15 minutes to get to Altos de Chavon.
The Kandela show is performed in an open air, stone amphitheater. If you do not like the Vegas style variety shows, you will not like this. The show is very much like the variety shows in the ship, just a bit grander and in Spanish. It was very good. There are also cushions to rent for $1. They don't look like much but they are worth the $1 to rent. On the way to the amphitheater, there are a couple of vendors selling a few things. I think there prices were a little high. If you are not good with stairs, this may be one to skip as there didn't appear to be any handicap accessibility.
The next day, we booked a ship's tour called countryside experience. It is run by Bavaro Runners and I think they come all the way from Punta Cana to do the tour for the ship. The tour takes you on an open-air safari truck to a sugar plantation. We enjoyed our guide and he gave us a lot of information but I think some people thought he may have been a little rough around the edges and didn't like that he drank some rum too when they offered us rum. The truck basically drives through the plantation, they stop and cut some sugar cane and cut it for you to try as well as offer rum and coke (or soft drinks). They also do offer to sell the Bavaro Runners shirts and hats. On the way out of the plantation, we saw a train car loaded up waiting to get picked up and some workers harvesting some sugar cane and loading it on a wagon pulled by oxen.
Next was off to a plant nursery (Costa Nursery). This is the biggest nursery I have ever seen and if you like plants, this is a nice stop. I just wished I could have bought a plant or two to take back. I liked this tour since I work for my state's agriculture department and found the local agriculture interesting. This is the only island on this itinerary that had much in the way of large-scale agriculture.
We then went through La Romana to a local cigar factory. It was small with 3 workers but you can see them prepping the tobacco and them rolling the cigars. You can purchase cigars and Santo Domingo coffee there. The cigars varied in price and the coffee was $5 for a pound. We thought that was cheap and it smells amazing! After the cigar factory, they took us to a souvenir shop that had all sorts of things to buy. They had vanilla ($2 for I'd say 16 ounces), coffee, Santo Domingo cocoa, amber jewelry, artwork, and all sorts of things. We were happy to pick up our purchases here. Through town we saw some nice park areas and lots of stores. Remember, this town is not very touristy. There are a few tourist shops but most of the stores are places the local people use for their own shopping. It seemed like it would be interesting to walk around in the daytime. A little knowledge of Spanish would be helpful. Some people have mentioned the Jumbo on these boards. We did see it but not go in it. Sounds like it is a grocery/department store. It looked easy to get to. From the pier area, go out to the main road and take a left to go over the bridge and go straight. You should run right into the Jumbo. It looked like it might be about a mile. I think someone said they walked to it and it took about 15 minutes and they didn't feel in danger at all.
If you wish to do a tour here, it seems the only way to do it is through the ship. I know many people did go off on their own to La Romana or to Altos de Chavon and that seems very easy by taxi or shuttle. My understanding is that Carnival will go to this port through February and take it off starting in March. I believe they intend to come back to La Romana at some point in the future.
Disembarkation: This was one of the best disembarkations we have ever experienced and went extremely smooth. Normally, my husband who is a legal US resident but Canadian has to go to one of the lounges at the crack of dawn to sit for about an hour to clear through an immigration officer. They have done away with that. Instead, when your number is called (we were number 28), you go to the Palladium Lounge and they have all US citizens sit in the main part and all non-citizens sit in the last row. When customs is ready for a batch of non-citizens, they call that row. Because I was traveling with my husband and my parents were traveling with us, they allowed the three of us (US citizens) go with my husband in the non-citizen row. That turned out to be an advantage as we were called right away. We got to go to the Bong check out box with the shorter line and then got in the shorter customs line as well. We were off the ship at about 10:30. We got a cab to the airport ($25 for the 4 of us with all our bags) by going off towards the curb and got in a line where a person in an orange shirt wrote the cab fare down on a pad of paper and called a cab over for us. We left and were at the airport by 11:00. LEAVE YOUR CARNIVAL DISEMBARKATION TAG ON YOUR SUITCASES!! The lady at the beginning of the airline queue told us to leave them on because if we didn't, we'd have to go through the USDA checkpoint in the airport. Many people did were not told this. Since the bags go through a USDA checkpoint at the pier, leaving the tag on shows they have been checked already. San Juan airport is very busy! Even though there were long lines, they moved quickly. To get our bags checked, get our boarding passes and get through the security, it took us just under and hour. Not too bad considering how many people were there.