Marriott Renaissance hotels are my favorite brand of hotels so I was excited to find one in SJ and booked a night before and after the cruise at the La Concha Renaissance. We arrived on July 3rd and I'm glad our experience at this hotel did not sour the rest of our trip. Our room was not available until 2 hours after their posted check-in time. The staff will not give us a time of when our room will be ready. I called the Marriott Customer Care number from my cellphone and even they got the run around. We had breakfast buffet at their Level 25 restaurant the next morning. We had to ask the wait staff for coffee, juice, water and refills. I was thinking that it must be the culture in PR, but after eating at Old Harbour Brewery, Senor Frogs, Myan Chung and Aquaviva in SJ, this was not normal. Don't get me wrong, the room and views are amazing - just not the service I've been used to in other US hotels. The room availability issue was the same on the return trip. 2 hours wait for the room.
All in all, the cruise on the Carnival Victory was amazing.
The Embarkation was a little crazy - I've read both good and bad reviews on this before the trip, so we were forewarned. The line before the security check was unorganized, with VIPs cutting in line. Some security personnel allowed it, some didn't. Oh well. We got on the ship early with our luggage then went back out to walk around Old San Juan. Getting back on the ship, you still have to go through the same security line. I wished that once you had your room card and got off the ship, there's a separate security check in like the ports when you get back on. My timing was a little off in booking this cruise because of the 4th of July. A lot of stores were closed and roads were closed due to the parade. The trolley did not operate this day.
The hubby and I had a balcony on the Empress deck and the kids had an inside stateroom right across the hall. The staterooms are roomier than I imagined, with plenty of closet and drawer space. We ate lunch at the Lido deck and the buffet food was good as buffet foods would go and lots of variety. We were immediately offered the drink special and the hubby and I each had one. The only bad thing is, the 30 minutes we sat on our table, we must have had 20 offers of refills on our drink - it was getting annoying.
There was open seating for dinner and we immediately decided we will eat in the dining room when we can - the food and service was fabulous. One morning, we were late for breakfast and ate at the Lido - it wasn't that great - so when we woke the kids up in the morning to go to breakfast, and they're dragging, we just gave them the option to eat on the Lido and that's all it took to get them up. :p
I love the Cruise Critic board. I learned so much before the cruise: - Going the the secret place on the forward area on Deck 9 leaving port was amazing - My son asked for seconds most nights; he's going through a growth spurt; our waitstaff was WONDERFUL - Rudi and Purba! Before my son can ask for seconds, they will typically clear his plate and bring the seconds even before he asks and they're rewarded by my son's GRIN. :D - My daughter is a picky eater. She ordered mac and cheese one night, chicken nuggets and fries another; On Elegant night, we were able to pre-order Fettuccine Alfredo for her - My son left his room card in the game room machine so got him a free lanyard from the casino
The entertainment we saw were fabulous. Comedian Percy Cruz and Magician Rand Woodbury were hits with the whole family. Cruise Director "Karl with a K" did a great job. We did bingo some nights, casino other nights. We were quite disappointed though with the participation on the activities. We were going to participate in the Digital Scavenger Hunt and were the only ones to show up! My husband and I showed up for a Trivia game and there were like 5 of us. It's a ship with thousands of people so I don't understand...
Our rooms were straightened both morning and night, thanks to our room Steward Kerry.
I wore my Sea Bands most of the time. We were on the Aft and not sure if it's rockier on that side. Maybe next time we'll try to get a Mid stateroom.
Disembarkation was a cinch. We had our luggages out the door before 11PM, they were gone the next morning. We had breakfast in the dining room, got the rest of our stuff from our room, waited in the Coral Seas in the Promenade for our number to be called, when it was called, went down to level 0, got a porter to help with the luggage, lined up for Custom check and we were outta there.
Got a taxi to La Concha and went through waiting-for-room-hell again. We headed back to Old San Juan after getting into the room to change and freshen up. We had a terrific time at Senor Frogs watching the World Cup game.
Oh, two things about San Juan: 1. Make sure you discuss with taxi driver the cost - one taxi demanded $20 when the posted rate was $12 2. When leaving San Juan, at the airport, you have to go through USDA inspection first before checking in with your airline.
There were actually good stores right off the pier. Got some DelSol (color changes in the sun) shirts and gifts and Calypso rum cake (they gave samples of each flavor).
I went into the Diamond International off the pier to check if they had the ring I saw in St. Thomas. They did. For the same carat, color and clarity, they offered best price of $575. Hmmm, much lower than St. Thomas. As we were leaving, the clerk asked if we would like to see if the manager can give us a better price. We said sure! The manager's price was $455. I was still not convinced that this is the best price, after all, there were 3 more ports to go!
We went to the taxi area. There is an official looking person who asks you for how many people and where you are going, fills out a piece of paper and tells you to follow someone. Well, this was quite a disaster. They kept putting my family for 4 into vans that were already occupied. In one van, there were only 2 seats left. We had to walk all the way back to the front, then were escorted to a van with 3 seats left. Aaarrrrggghhhh!!! Finally, they take us to an empty van. The driver opened the back of the van to put the back seats up. As he was doing this, someone behind him was trying to pass, got impatient and started honking his horn and possibly cursing (i didn't understand). Oh my! A shouting match between the 2 drivers ensued. Meanwhile, more people come and starts getting on the van. We find out that 4 people out of 11 in our van were going to the beach. More confusion. The driver agrees to take people to Bridgetown first, then will head to the beach. He starts collecting money. We give our $16 and other people started handing him money was well. Well, the driver starts jumping up and down and starts accusing a group of 5 in the van that they didn't give him enough money. Another big argument. After 5 minutes of argument, it was proven that the driver already put some money in his pocket. Ay-yay-yay!!!
In Bridgetown, you can't walk in the streets without constantly being approached to be taken to a nice beach, or asked if you are ready to go back. We were walking one direction once and a man physically blocks us and were told to go another direction for shopping. I told him that I was headed to one particular store but he wanted us to go the the other direction first, then back to that store. The man was probably too shocked when i gave him what my husband calls "the eye" and flat out told him "NOBODY TELLS ME WHERE TO GO SHOPPING" and walked towards him and he stepped aside for me and my family to pass. That was probably dangerous, but my hubby was with me and I was pissed.
So, Barbados, as much as we saw and experienced was just so-so.
On the morning for Dominica, my daughter woke up with a very bad headache so my husband decided to just stay on the ship with her. When I went to the meeting place for Bumpiing tours, I informed Levi of our situation. We were the only 4 people booked for that particular tour and he said it would be costly to him to just run that route with the 2 of us. He offered for us to go with other routes where there are available seats. My son and I decided to go on the excursion for Titou Gorge, Trafalgar Falls and option to snorkel at Champagne reef at the end. Our tour guide was Gary.
First, if you make an impression of Dominica based on what you see from the ship in Roseau, you are missing a lot!!!
Be forwarned though, that going into the heart of Dominica, you will be weaving through curvy, badly paved (if at all) roads. I wore my trusty sea bands and didn't experience motion sickness. Some passengers in our tour were a little worried with the small roads and the cliffs or rock walls to your left or right but everyone made it through ok :). Gary was very informative with Dominica history and information. We headed on to the town of Laudat and I really didn't do a lot of reading on Titou Gorge since I didn't think we were going there.
After a short hike (maybe 10 minutes) - I do recommend good sandals or water shoes though, possibly closed-toe - we were given waist floaties. As you wade into the entrance to the gorge, the water is COLD! But as you swim into the gorge, you get used to the water and boy, was it ABSOLUTELY AMAZING! It is an experience both me and my son will never forget. There is a small but powerful waterfall in the gorge, and after carefully climbing the falls, we jumped off the falls into the deep water to go back out. Supposedly, a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean 2 was filmed here. Now I'll have to re-watch it to find it.
Then off to Trafalgar Falls. Wow! This twin waterfalls is breathtaking. Again, there's a hike to the falls so good footwear is important. Gary took us down to the Sulphur springs by the falls and the water was hot but felt very, very good. This is something you shouldn't miss when visiting Dominica.
On the way back to Roseau, we drove pass where Sulphur (stinky) was coming out of the earth, then drove through the Botanical gardens. My son and I were tired and opted out of the snorkeling. At this point, 5 hours has passed and we were pooped, but very happy.
We booked this excursion through Carnival because Cantours will not let you book locally if you're with the cruise.
I think we made a good decision to book the earliest zip line adventure because a lot of people signed up for it and it can get backed up.
Basseterre has definitely become more commercialized since our last visit, as we drove through on our way to Wingfield Estates for the zip line. There are ruins in the estate. The ziplining was wonderful and exciting! I'm glad to be able to do this with my kids.
After the zipline, we went back to the ship and ate lunch. Then my husband and I headed back out for a trip to one of the beaches, and also in search of our 'ole Taxi Driver Sir Walter who we heard is still running his taxi service in St. Kitts after 20 years. We decided to go to South Frigate beach and our taxi driver Ava told us that Walter usually hangs out around the Marriott resort but she promised to let him know we are in search of him if she sees him.
We spent a nice 2 hours on South Frigate beach, me drinking mango coladas and my husband drinking Carib beer. A local lady offered me a foot massage with aloe and how can I resist!!!! When we were ready to head back, Ava had a surprise for us. She was able to get a hold of Walter and he was there! We headed back to Basseterre with Ava, but Walter was able to pickup some passengers from the beach to Basseterre and we were able to get pictures taken with him and his new ride.
BTW, be wary of kids with the baby monkeys. We had a couple in our zipline tour who had pictures taken with the baby monkey on their shoulders. As the boy is handed about $3, he demands $10. Not wanting a scene, the lady gave him the $10. So if you want a picture with the baby monkeys, ask how much first. You can always start walking away and say you only have so much if the price is too high. I have mixed feelings about this monkey business (no pun intended!). We passed by a house where a boy was hitting his baby monkey :(.
Diamond International update: my ring here is $505. Barbados was still the best price! Oh no! Only one more port to go!
Our driver was Bumpy and supposedly, 90% of the people in St. Lucia has a nickname. We were afraid he got his nickname from bumpy rides, but it's because of his gait when he walks.
Again, I am grateful for my Sea Bands, but I actually had to take some Bonine on the way back because I knew I needed something stronger after the eats and drinks included in this tour and curvy roads. But what a way to see and experience St. Lucia!
We left Castries around 8:30. As we drive through St. Lucia, our first stop is a visit to a banana plantation where Bumpy explained to us about planting and growing bananas. We stopped at a stand where we sampled some yummy ripe bananas. More driving through the fishing villages of Anse La-Raye and Canaries. We then stopped at a house where all of Cosol's tourists stopped for breakfast. We sampled fish cakes, johnny cakes, coconut cakes, mango and the cosol fruit. Soda, water, beer and rum punch were all available and as Bumpy says, "All eats and drinks are free." As we start heading to the town of Soufriere, we start getting glimpses of the Pitons. We were taken to the volcano that had a big crater where sulphur came out. Oh my heavens, it stunk very, very bad!!! But it was an experience! :p
We then drove towards the water and boarded a water taxi and is rewarded by a very nice ride to Jalousie Beach, which is right smack in the middle of the 2 Pitons. We were given an hour to swim and snorkel (have to pay $10 per snorkel gear). We saw some amazing fish!
After an hour, we headed back to Soufriere on a water taxi. Then we were off to a waterfall and botanical gardens. You can take a dip at the small pool at the bottom of the waterfall.
On our way back to Castries, we stopped from some local hot bread and cheese. YUM!
We didn't get to do much shopping in St. Lucia after our 6-hour adventure, but I did check my ring price... $550. Hmmm, Barbados still had the best price but I had 2 more ports!
Through our stops, there are many vendors selling their wares. I'm pretty smart about this. My son loves the necklaces with the shark's tooth at the end. Vendors were selling them for $12-$15. I told my son to put $5 in his pocket. As he finds a vendor and he asks the price, he starts to walk away and says, "I only have $5." And of course, he gets called back and given the necklace for that price. He does the same thing at 2 other stops so he can bring some home for his friends. The people on our van are amazed at this, as they paid for the full price. The same thing with my daughter's bowl made from Calabash with a beautiful painting inside. One vendor was asking $20, the other $15. As we were all getting back on the van, one lady ran after my daughter. I opened my wallet and showed her that I only had $7. Sold! :)
Out of all the islands, I loved St. Lucia the best!
The only complaint I have about St. Maarten is that both our taxi drivers wouldn't say a word. We would have loved to know more about the island as we passed thru towns on the way to Orient Beach, but most of our questions are pretty much answered in nods and grunts.
Orient Beach was beautiful. My son was 16 for the day so he can jet ski by himself - a lifelong dream, supposedly. I did get on the ski with him for about 15 minutes, but he was on it by himself for the remaining 45 minutes. My hubby and I enjoyed the water and the soft sand and my daughter enjoyed her sun bathing. We did see a couple of topless OLD women :p and some OLD men wearing thong bottoms.
We were amazed that dogs were allowed on the beach. We are dog lovers, and it made us miss our 2 dogs left behind at home. We had lunch at a beachside bar and grill called Kakao - a little on the pricey side, but hey, we were on vacation.
After more than 3 hours at Orient Beach, we headed back to downtown Philipsburg for some shopping!! I had to visit That Yoda Guy. Met Nick and Gloria Maley and I had to buy a pencil sketch print of Yoda/Luke. My son asked if I was going to leave that to him when I die - I told him he has a long wait. We sampled some Guavaberry and bought some liqueur and bbq sauce.
We headed back to the pier where more shopping is available. My daughter has been in search on a fedora through the whole trip and she finally found it here. We also bought some local crafts for gifts to take home.
So, I walked in to the last Diamond International. They have my ring... I asked for the BEST price, the manager's price. $555. Sigh... I told them for the same carat, color and clarity in Barbados, the manager was giving me $455. After disappearing for a while, the clerk said we can have the ring for that price and while waiting for the paperwork, we were even offered drinks! So, I'm very, very happy. I was not expecting to buy jewelry on this trip but this is a present for myself. As I go back to work, and typing on my keyboard, if someone asks me what time I'm going home, I'll have to look at my ring and say "not yet"... have to get some overtime for the ring! :)
I highly recommend Godfrey. He is very personable and very knowledgeable about the island but not to the point of boredom. I have 2 teenagers and they enjoyed it.
So, Godfrey picked us up from the security check-in area and took us to the shopping area in Charlotte Amalie. He gives you an option for 3, 2 or 1 hour shopping time - I chose 3 of course!!! So he picked us up at 9AM.
One of the vendors that caught my eye from the Carnival handout was Mr. Tablecloth. We have an extra-long dining room table (need 126in. length) and I was curious to see if they would have a wide selection. They did! I ended up buying 2 no-iron table cloths, and a Irish linen table cloth. The prices were very, very reasonable and the staff was very, very personable.
We also went to Cariloha. The feel of these shirts made from bamboo were wonderful. My son got a shirt and the hubby got a polo.
We also checked out the Waterford crystals in The Crystal Shoppe. The prices are so much lower than buying from department stores (Macy's, Dillards). For example, the pair of champagne flutes I want are $119 at Dillards and $79 at The Crystal Shoppe. Great deal! They didn't have the pattern I needed in stock but gave me the information for ordering online.
We did go to the Diamonds International to look around. A particular .33KT diamond ring on 18KT white gold caught my eye. This begins my quest to see if other DIs through all the ports have the same price, or if it will differ. So St. Thomas best price $650. To be continued...
After shopping, we grabbed drinks and food to go from Jen's grill right by the Emancipation building and close to where we were to meet Godfrey.
So Godfrey picks us back up at noon and we started making our way around St. Thomas, as he stops at certain points for pictures and history. The island is beautiful. We stopped at the Botanical Gardens (a $2 admission pp) for more beautiful views and see the birds in their aviary.
We have a choice to go to Magens Beach or Coki Beach. Since Magens was rated one of the top 10 beaches in the world, we decided this is where we wanted to go ($4 pp). Godfrey gives us 2 hours to stay here. It did pour rain while we were at Magens, but my son and hubby just stayed in the water. Poor daughter was only able to put in 30 minutes of sun bathing. But as Caribbean showers go, the rain only lasted about 15 minutes but unfortunately stayed cloudy. Once on Magens beach though... I really can't imagine it being one of the top 10s! A very nice beach... but really, i've seen better that are not on the top 10.
Godfrey showed up promptly but we were surprised that he picked us up on a different safari. It turns out, that on their way to Coki, our first safari was making a bad noise so after dropping off the other people at Coki, he went and got a different vehicle. This impressed me even more with Godfrey.