San Juan - our hotel was just lovely - the Condado Plaza - I would recommend it for a pre-cruise stay, which I will definitely do before my next trip, no more day-of flying for me!
Our flight to St. Thomas was with Cape Air on a 9 seater plane. The flight was wonderful! What a thrill, and it almost made up for missing the sailing ;) Basically a half hour sightseeing flight. My hubby and I just loved it! After a short cab ride to the pier, we finally saw the Victory - and even though we were all scared of hearing the "toot toot" from the horn just before we got there, she was still tied up when we happily rolled up the gangway. I believe there were 200 - 300 people who missed the sailing, so we watched many people follow our path all day long.
St. Thomas - we didn't do anything! We boarded at 2:30, and weren't about to set foot off the ship again that day!!!
The Victory - What a beautiful ship! We absolutely loved the color schemes and designs of the public areas. The "seas of the world" theme lent itself to beautiful blues, greens and golds. There are tubes covered in tiny white lights that snake around the ceilings which make the ship festive. Joe Farcus said in the design video that they were inspired by electric eels - don't worry, they don't look like eels! I found the colors and decorations elegant and lovely. The ship was constantly scrubbed and cleaned, and most surfaces were simply gleaming. Of course there were some areas where several years of wear were evident in carpets, for example, and I believe she is in for some refurb in the near future, but you certainly won't suffer any if you go before that work is done. Others had warned about "seahorse bites". Boy oh boy, did I fall victim! The seahorses at the foot of each stairway railing were quite decorative, but for the somewhat accident prone, just watch your step! (DH can't figure out how I did it).
Staff and Crew - We really liked Malcolm as director. We found him genuinely funny, not corny, and very entertaining. He also kept the Bingo and the announcements to a minimum, which made for a nice atmosphere in our opinion. Although this coming week will be his last on the Victory, so if you're cruising in 2009, you won't have him anyway. Squishy, the assistant CD walked with us on the On Deck for the Cure, and was great to chat with. Otherwise, we didn't see many entertainment staff. The room stewards and wait staff were just as good as we have always had, and some of the bartenders were especially friendly and chatty.
On-board: I have to admit, we didn't make it out to any bars, which is out of character, but when you read our daily activities, you'll understand why! There was a latin band, karaoke, some jazz nights with the orchestra, a classical pianist, a solo guitar act, a duo (replacing the Music... bands?) and a calypso duo. The Orchestra was wonderful. I thought the dancers were the most coordinated and talented we've seen so far. The female singer has a tremendous range, and I enjoyed most of her songs, definitely the most talented female we've had on our three cruises. The male must have been sick at first, because I wasn't impressed during the first show, but was blown away by the second. Livin' in America and Vrooom are fun, high energy shows with great costumes and fun music. They were nice, enjoyable evenings.
Christmas: Decorations on the ship were lovely, traditional, and certainly not obtrusive. There was also a large menorah lit every evening, but there was no ceremony involved as far as I could tell. There was a lovely Christmas show with the singers and dancers and a very few children from Camp Carnival - each age group performed a song or dance. Santa Came, the Captain gave a greeting, and at the end, many staff came down with candles and everyone sang Silent Night. It was a lovely, moving experience. We gave all our servers and stewards a little extra cash in a holiday card, and a box of chocolates for each of them. They were all pretty surprised and happy to receive them, and it was nice to give a gift on Christmas.
Passengers and cruise atmosphere - this was the most low-key cruise we've ever been on. There weren't many people on-deck at any time of day. The lido buffet was very busy around 3:00 every day when people returned from shore. The shows were pretty much full every night. While talking to Squishy (Assistant CD) he told us that most cruisers on this itinerary are there for the ports of call, so not many participate in on-board activities or games, and the night spots aren't as busy. Case in point - there were 9 of us who completed the On Deck for the Cure. As I mentioned, there were only a couple Bingos on board, hardly any special activities and the advertisements and announcements seemed to be at a minimum, which was really nice. It seemed less "camp-like" and more relaxed than other cruises we've done.
Food - yum, yum, yum! We did not enjoy the food on the Triumph last year, so we were wondering about the food on her sister, the Victory. I really loved the food. Nearly everything I ate was absolutely delicious. Stand-outs were certainly the chilled cucumber soup, the Taste of Nations Mediterranean on Lido, the soups at the Yangtze Wok, the Sushi bar, appetizers at the Past Guest Party and Seafood Medley in the main dining room. The only so-so meal I had was Chateaubriand, and that's because we raise our own beef so it's hard for plain old American beef to compare ;)
Let's get on to the ports of call!! (those that I actually made it to!)
Dominica - we did a private tour through bumpiing tours with the owner Levi Baron. It was only $60 per person for a 7 hour tour - the Roseau Valley Best. We hiked to Middleham Falls (I felt that hike for three days!), visited the Titou gorge, Middleham Falls, Wotten Waven Sulphur Springs, the Botanical Gardens and did snorkeling at Champagne Reef. The tour was phenomenal. I have never seen a place as breathtaking at Dominica. It's very undeveloped, and you're truly in the rainforest here. It's my idea of paradise with mountains, valleys, waterfalls, rivers and lush green as far as the eye can see. Levi was terrific, and I would HIGHLY recommend his tours for anyone travelling to Dominica. Remember, in the rainforest it rains - they average an inch a day. We were soaked all day, but it didn't dampen the awesome tour! www.bumpiingtours.com
Barbados - we booked a helicopter tour through Horizon Helicopters. They are relatively new, and are located near the airport. The nice thing about Horizon compared to the competition is that your tour is private, so DH and I were by ourselves with the pilot and no other passengers. The tour was very interesting, we encircled the entire island, and the pilot gave us a lot of information on the land and history. After Dominica I didn't find Barbados as beautiful, but the cliffs and coastline were very impressive, and the helicopter experience was once-in-a-lifetime. It was very windy, so we were pretty queasy by the last 10 minutes or so, and glad to touch down!! The tour also included a visit to the Barbados Concorde Experience which is an interesting exhibit for anyone interested in aviation. You get to go through the Concorde and learn a lot of the history of aviation in the Caribbean. DH really enjoyed it. We hired a taxi which came back to pick us up at a pre-arranged time. Some more rain today, but luckily after we landed. www.horizonheli.com and www.barbadosconcorde.com
St. Lucia - booked the Land and Sea to Soufriere through Carnival. We loved the tour which visited a fishing village, several lookouts spots, drove through a banana plantation and visited a drive-in volcano (cool!) and the botanical gardens. Our guides were fantastic, enthusiastic and gave a lot of information on the land, history and culture. The Gardens were tremendously beautiful. There's plenty to see and do on St. Lucia, and lots of lovely places to stay. I would certainly go back for a week-long vacation. We then boarded a catamaran for a delicious creole lunch and 2-3 hour cruise, a highlight was breadfruit casserole, which tasted like a baked mashed potato with cheese. The rum punch was free flowing, and there was calypso Christmas music playing. The shoreline was beautiful, and I felt perfectly relaxed and contented. We stopped to swim and saw some nice fish life. It was another windy day, and we had a few showers. It was the perfect way to spend Christmas.
Antigua - this island seems very developed with homes and businesses most closely resembling those we're used to at home. The landscape is much flatter than the other islands, it's drier, and there are more fields with agriculture and pasture. We did another ship tour - hike, snorkel and kayak eco-tour. We took small boats for about 45 minutes to great bird island. The ride was WILD! It was very windy again, and we got soaked on the fast ride. It was very James Bond though, and we loved the rush. We walked up to the top of this nice island which had a bit of vegetation, definitely a desert island. There were cool rock formations to look through down to the ocean. We snorkeled for awhile, but the waves were so big the bottom was really worked up which made it murky. One thing we weren't pleased with was that after our snorkel, we were told to throw our equipment back into these bins where we got them, and the next group was on their way down to get them. ick. I'm sure the salt water keeps germs down, but I'm tempted to get my own equipment for future. We then boated back to a somewhat sheltered area among mangroves for kayaking. The water was rough, and it was not exactly relaxing to fight our way around the stands of mangrove! The guides were friendly enough, but didn't explain much. They definitely show signs of doing this every day like clockwork. We did a very similar tour in Grand Turk last year which was phenomenal due to the enthusiasm of the guide who practically jumped in the air with glee each time he saw a creature to show us. In all, we didn't have a bad day in Antigua, but nothing we saw or did would entice us to return.
St. Kitt's - what a great way to end the trip! Another absolutely beautiful island. The buildings and homes were lovely here. Roads were well-maintained and drivers were courteous. We booked the Scenic Rail Tour through Carnival ( you can't book it privately). There was a 45 minute bus ride to the train with a very friendly, knowledgeable guide who showed us many towns and landmarks. The train itself is a narrow gauge double-decker train. There are 5 cars, and each holds maybe 20 passengers. You can sit up top in an open air covered car or below at tables in air conditioning. they do not over pack the cars, so there's plenty of space. It was very windy again (surprise) so it was a very shaky ride! They provided drinks, little coconut cakes, a travelling choir and informative narration. It was a beautiful trip with acres of sugar cane, scenic mountains, old sugar mills, busy little towns and farmers working in the fields. There were kids running alongside the train, and in every town people waved and smiled at us. Maybe it's because the government has told them that this is what paves the roads and builds the hospitals.... but regardless, it makes a great impression, and they are definitely hospitable to tourists. Where the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean sea meet you can actually see the waves crash against each other in a wild frenzy. That was something to see! There are many historic sites, museums, hiking trails and places to visit in St. Kitts, so I will definitely be back here as well. www.stkittsscenicrailway.com
Coming Home - we enrolled in the Lex program. For $20pp Carnival takes your luggage from the pier to the airport and checks it to your final destination. They also print your boarding pass and give it to you the night before you disembark. We did this because we had several hours before our flight, and since we missed San Juan on embarkation day, we wanted to wander a bit. Disembarkation could be nicer. After a week of excitement and luxe treatment (hey, this is luxury for us!) we felt pretty unceremoniously booted off the ship, bags in the hallway, waiting in the lounge to be told to line up, then standing in line to get off the ship. Oh well, I guess a super expensive line might have a fancier send-off, but it's a small trade-off for the great prices on Carnival I guess :) We walked down the paseo de la princesa which had a neat "Earth From Above" photo display on, then headed along the pathway at the base of the wall to the foot of El Morro. There were loads of cats here which added a sort of quirky ambiance! They collect donations to feed the cats. Again it was super windy, and we enjoyed rolling seas and big waves. Walking through old San Juan was lovely with beautiful Christmas decorations on many buildings.
Getting to the airport was great, as we breezed through security straight to the gate, although the lines weren't long at all, so we wouldn't have had much trouble anyway. Our flight arrived and departed 40 minutes late, and the plane was practically falling apart! (US airways). Three luggage compartments popped open during takeoff and landing, and my hubby had to close several during the flight that opened above our heads. My seat wouldn't stay upright, and the light above my seat was smashed. Made me very optimistic about the safety of the plane! The pilot told us he was late because before they left Philadelphia the equivalent of the check engine light kept lighting up so they had to get it checked out. I was very uncomfortable on that flight. We found that our connecting flight was leaving concourse F, and we were landing in concourse A, and would have 10 minutes to get there by taking a shuttle. While rushing to concourse F, we looked on the departures board, and saw beside our Buffalo flight "Cancelled". Oh No! After another visit to Special Services, we got on an 8:30 flight to Buffalo. Ok, another 2 hours, no problem. We finally got to Buffalo and.... no luggage. Filled out some forms, and headed home, pretty exhausted. After crossing the boarder painlessly, and making it across the windy skyway bridge (do you notice a weather trend here?) we got to my parents house 22 hours after getting up that morning. Phew! the next day, we got a call from the airline around noon that they had our luggage, and were sending it by truck that evening. So DH and I headed home, and our luggage made it to my parents' where we'll pick it up later this week. Phew.
So I've initiated my claim for our extra little flight to St. Thomas, some huge taxi fees, extra meals, and a smashed digital camera that didn't survive the flight home in our carry on luggage. It wasn't the best way to end the trip, but in all we had the very best time we could have hoped for. I absolutely loved this itinerary, and would do it again in a heartbeat. The Victory was probably our favorite ship for decor and atmosphere, as well as food. It was the perfect way to spend Christmas, and we loved every minute from the moment we boarded the ship to the moment we got off.