We always choose to spend a couple of nights in or near our departure city prior to taking a cruise. That way we are sure we don't miss our boat due to weather (we live in Denver and the airport closes occasionally), plus we have a little fun beforehand. Miami is a great port with lots to do in and outside of the city. This time we spent two nights at South Beach and had a great time. We like to stay at the Clay Hotel. It is inexpensive, funky, and at a great location. The time at South Beach, of course, did not diminish our excitement about going on this, our fourth cruise.
Our first cruise four years ago was with Norwegian, Then we did two cruises with Royal Caribbean. This was a return to Norwegian for us, motivated primarily by the itinerary. We both decided that while we enjoyed the cruise and the Norwegian Jewel, we prefer Royal Caribbean. Both cruise lines tend to be annoying with their efforts to make as much money off of passengers as possible once they are on the ship but Norwegian seems to be more obnoxious about it. A lot of ship's space is taken up by the specialty restaurants, which require additional charges, and there seemed to be more pushing of pull tabs, bingo, etc. Being a member of Latitudes didn't offer any real privileges, it only seemed to make us eligible for more sales pitches. It was hard to find quiet places to relax and read on the Jewel. They needed more deck chairs and fewer tables in the shaded areas around the pool. We, like a lot of people, are careful about our sun dosage and would really have liked some lounge chairs available that were out of the sun and wind. One of the things we liked about the Royal Caribbean ships we have taken was their Solariums. The only thing comparable on the Jewel was the relaxation area in the Bora Bora Spa. It was very nice but required a fee of $20/day or $119/cruise per person. I had hoped to spend some time in the library, which I enjoyed very much on my first Norwegian cruise, but the chairs in the Jewel's library were among the most uncomfortable I have ever sat in. That's about it for complaints. We certainly didn't let any annoyances get in the way of having a good time. And I have to say that Norwegian gave us plenty of opportunities for that. We loved the evening entertainment. It was clear that the "resident" entertainers and the Cruise Director's staff enjoyed what they were doing. They seemed to operate like a family and we felt included in that. The comedy was very good, whether from Joe the comedian, the magician, or the singers. The musical entertainment throughout the lounges was outstanding as well. We danced nearly every night, hitting the bed after 12:30 and getting up again around 6:30 to watch the ship come into port and enjoy shore excursions. We are catching up on our rest now that we are home. The food was good. It was tasty and kept us going. My wife enjoyed all of the vegetable dishes and fruits and almost became a vegetarian for the duration of the cruise. We are both carnivores but thought that vegetarians would not have felt left out at all by the foods available, particularly in the Garden Cafe buffet. There were some very nice Indian curries and other dishes. On the two days at sea heading back to Miami I discovered the buffalo wings in the Blue Lagoon which I really enjoyed. One of the reasons we chose not to pay the surcharge for the specialty restaurants was to use that money instead for purchasing interesting lunches on the different islands. On Samana we had lunch at a beachside grill on Playa Rincon, washed down with Mamajuana (a local drink of rum, wine, honey and tree bark). On Tortola we had chicken roti and chicken stew at the Midtown Restaurant, a place recommended as frequented by locals. On Barbados we had flying fish, a local specialty, for lunch. I would say that our time in port and excursions on this cruise were probably the best of all of our cruises. I love to plan our port days so spent a lot of time on the internet gathering information before going. Here is some information about the ports.
We did the ship's excursion with Samana highlights and an hour on Playa Rincon. It was very interesting to see the sights along the way but the road was very rough. Anticipate a very rough and uncomfortable ride. The beach is considered one of the best in the world, it was nice but we wouldn't have given it that rating. Everyone said to do an excursion on Samana rather than trying to go into town and do your own thing. I would agree with that. Whether you can arrange a tour beforehand with a private operator or go through the ship, you will find that the most rewarding.
The ship offered an excursion for a Dolphin Swim Adventure. My wife had seen a dolphin foot push (two dolphins push your feet and literally raise you out of the water) at a dolphin place in the Riviera Maya back in 2003 and had wanted to do that someday. But the Dolphin Swim Adventure did not offer that. I did a quick internet search a couple of months before the cruise and found the place that the ship's excursion went, Dolphin Discovery. For only a bit more money we could do the Dolphin Royal Swim, which offered both a foot push and a dorsal fin ride and some other extras. We booked directly with Dolphin Discovery and took a cab from the ship when we arrived. Because our time was at noon we were the only two persons doing the Royal Swim and had 45 uninterrupted minutes with the dolphins. Definitely worth the extra money. Before heading back to the ship we stopped at the Sunny Caribbee spice shop and got some spicy souvenirs to take home.
We started our day with a fairly early morning walk up to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. As we walked through town we passed folks headed to work and children going to school. From the church we could hear a school marching band in the distance. It was one of the least "touristy" times we spent on the cruise. It is a fairly short walk from the dock and offered a nice view of the town of St. John's. Be sure to take a look inside the church. After that we took a ship's excursion to Antigua's Sting Ray City. We got a lot of good information about Antigua and its history on the way there. The sting ray experience had more people than our dolphin experience the day before but there were plenty of sting rays to go around. They swim by and gently rub up against you, just like a cat or a dog. Definitely worth it as excursions go.
We are historians and wanted to see some specific historical sites. My wife is into George Washington and we had been to the George Washington house on a previous visit. We didn't go there this time but would definitely recommend it. We weren't particularly attracted to the ship's excursions and didn't have much success trying to arrange an excursion with some of the tour companies on the island (they didn't return emails). So we decided on this day to just snag a taxi. We followed advice we had gotten from other Cruise Critic members and went outside of the restricted area for a taxi rather than taking one of the higher priced tours at the dock. As luck would have it, our taxi driver Malron lived near St. Nicholas Abbey, one of our objectives. I wasn't interested in a house tour but asked to go directly to their rum shop. I had found on their website that they make their own "boutique" rum. In the rum shop we ordered a bottle, which was filled and personalized right in front of us. Because Malron knew the workers we also got a tour around the rum-making facility, looking at all of the old equipment that is still being used and watching the distilling process. They have their own sugar cane fields so cover the entire process from field to bottle. We topped off the visit with a stop at the restrooms, which were equipped with genuine Thomas Crapper toilets and sinks. There's a living historical experience! We also saw Bathsheba Beach, the Morgan Lewis sugar mill, and the St. James parish church.
Again we were not attracted to the excursions offered by the Jewel. After spending a lot of time reading feedback for the various St. Lucia tours on Cruise Critic, I decided to book with Spencer Ambrose. One of the big reasons was that we could spend 2 hours out of the 6 hour tour snorkeling. Since we get to Yellowstone once or twice a year we weren't particularly interested in the drive-through volcano. And we wanted to spend more time on the beach and ocean since we don't have either here in Colorado. We connected with another couple from Colorado through the Cruise Critic board who felt the same way. Spencer took the four of us and pretty much customized the tour to what we wanted. He made several stops so we could sample the foods, stopped at a botanic gardens with a waterfall (saw a very beautiful blue hummingbird there) and then gave us two hours at the Jalousie Plantation's beach. It is a rather breathtaking spot nestled between the two Pitons. We got in our snorkeling plus enjoyed the beach and the views. We would heartily recommend him for a tour; he was very attentive and knew people everywhere we stopped. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
When we got back to Miami we had quite a while before our plane left. We had decided to book the Jewel's excursion to the Everglades. When you consider the cost of getting yourself and your bags to the airport if you didn't do the excursion, it's a pretty good deal. And it sure beat hanging around the Miami airport for a good part of a day. It included an airboat ride and an alligator show at a place called the Everglades Safari Park. In keeping with the local food theme we followed on this cruise, we had alligator nuggets in the place's restaurant.
On the islands we saw Obama posters, buttons, etc. People were very excited about the upcoming inauguration and it made for some nice conversations. From our perspective it was nice to get back from the cruise and immediately get caught up in all of the excitement associated with the inauguration. It made the transition back to "reality" a little easier.