We started this cruise on Sunday, August 29. From our hotel we took a cab to the port around 11:30AM and went through embarkation. There was a little wait before we were allowed to board at 12:45PM. After lunch on the Lido deck and a little relaxing, we headed to our cabin on deck 8. As with all our previous cruises, we had a balcony stateroom - no surprises there, except for a letter from the captain. We were aware of Hurricane Earl - we'd been following the weather updates all week and we knew it might get close. As it turned out, it would get REALLY close, affecting the US Virgin islands and Puerto Rico.
The captain's letter announced that the ship need to take a different itinerary. Instead of going to St.Thomas, the next day would be a sea day and we'd visit St.Thomas later that week, replacing St.Maarten. Also, St.Lucia and Dominica were swapped. Luckily, our shore excursions (all privately booked) could all be switched.After a quick freshening up, we went off the ship again to see more of Old San Juan and to buy diet coke at the CVS opposite the pier.
The ship was in really good shape. All public areas were spotless. There were some worn carpets on the deck 2 corridors, but that was a minor issue. Food and service were on par or even slightly better than previous cruises. The entertainment certainly has gotten better, especially with the new production shows.
Hosts Gayve, Smithy, Shelly and Michelle were all a bit crazy (but good crazy) and fun to hang out with.
Cruise director Karl (with a K) was a nice English guy who made sure everyone was informed and entertained. He had a chat session scheduled on the last day, and as no one else showed up it was practically a 1-on-1 talk about ship life. It turned our that missing St.Thomas on the first day had caused some supply problems (we'd noticed they ran out of orange juice by day 5, but all departments ran out of several things at some point).
The Maitre D' in the Pacific dining room was a hoot. A very funny Italian guy who announced the wait staff entertainment between main course and dessert with a enthousiastic and frequent yelling of "who-hoo!". By the third day, he had the entire dining room "who-hoo-ing". Only downside: the two of us were seated at a 4-person table. There were several other twosomes in a similar situation. The Maitre D' should have come round the room the first night to ask if anyone wished to join other couples. We for one would have liked the conversation.
A weird thing on the ship were the elevators, which seemed to have a mind of their own. When we needed to go down, we saw them passing our floor (mostly deck 8) more often than not. Might they be full of people going from Lido deck to lower decks? You'd be inclined to think so. However, a couple of times we'd press 'up' just to get on. Imagine our surprise when the elevator didn't go up to higher floors, but immediately went down - leaving our fellow cruisers on deck 8 waiting for another elevator...
On the plus side, it was cheaper than a tour company and we could explore in our own time. However, we found the following drawbacks: road signage is practically nonexistent, driving times are much longer than GPS or tour map indicated, roads are quite bad in some places. And - if you like that sort of thing - you'll miss the narration of a local guide.
After a quick stop at a supermarket (supplies), we visited the Andromeda Gardens, Bathsheba (beautiful), North Point (stunning!), Gun Hill Station (interesting). We saw lots of local island life along the way. We also wanted to visit Mount Gay Rum, but we arrived too late for the tour so we headed back to port.
Maybe we'd be able to see more of Bridgetown and its museums if we'd been on a tour, but we'll leave that for our next visit (whenever that may be).
All in all, I wouldn't recommend a rental car unless you know *exactly* where to go and how to get there. I would recommend visiting the remote sites such as North Point as they are quite beautiful.
Because of Hurricane Earl, our ship had to divert to St. Lucia and went to Dominica two days later then scheduled. I had e-mailed Antours from the ship to let them know this change, and they replied that they were aware of the situation. However, when we arrived at the pier and sought out the Antours people, it turned out we (and another couple) weren't on the guest list. Because of that, they had to rent another taxi van. They told us we had to go with the other people to Emerald Pool, then river tubing, then snorkeling. There was already a delay because of the extra taxi, and by the time we got to the river tubing site we had to wait almost an hour for the gear (floats, jackets & helmets) to arrive. It was almost 3PM when we finally started tubing - which is great fun, by the way - and we were finished an hour or so later.
By now it was too late to go to our Champagne reef snorkel. At this time, the manager - very courteous and polite - met with us and told us this part of the excursion would be refunded (and in fact this was done a few days later). However, most of our precious time on the island was lost waiting (taxi 0,5 hour, Emerald pool 1,5 hours & river tubing equipment 1 hour) so we don't feel this organisation would rate more than average.
Pre-cruise stay was at the Hotel Milano in Fortaleza Street in the middle of OSJ. This is an adequate hotel with very friendly staff. Only issue with the room was that it had no windows and since we can't sleep with the a/c on, the atmosphere quickly became uncomfortable. Having flown from Europe, we were so tired we slept anyway. Breakfast in the hotel was just $5,35 and the rooftop terrace location has excellent views of the city - we could also see the whale tail funnel in the distance.
We were up early (still on European time) and after breakfast we strolled around Old San Juan. The streets were very quiet (8:30AM) and we thoroughly enjoyed our walk - even if the heat was already getting oppressive by 10AM. We walked along Fortaleza and Del Christo Streets to El Morro, where we explored the old fortress with its guns, garitas and massive walls. On the way back to the hotel we were able to take one the free trolleys. We embarkation and lunch and a quick freshening up, we went off the ship again to see more of Old San Juan. This time we went to the old city gate and Paseo de la Princesa. Final stop was the CVS opposite the pier to buy diet coke.
Post-cruise we rented a car with Charlie Cars (free pickup) and drove to El Yunque, some 45 minutes from the city. The El Portal visitor center has a nice movie about the forest. Unfortunately, there was still some damage from the hurricane and we couldn't go past Coca falls.
Our hotel was the Hampton Inn in Isla Verde. Very nice hotel, breakfast included and only $5/day parking. Close to Pueblo supermarket and various restaurants.
The following day, we visited the San Christobal fortress, which is similar yet subtly different to El Morro - be sure to check out the sleeping quarters, a poignant reminder about living conditions in times past. We also went to touristy stops such as the Bacardi distillery and the huge Plaza Las Americas shopping center.
As said earlier: San Juan is nice and you'll find something for everyone's taste here.
We had independently booked a 2-tank dive with Kenneth's Dive Center, located in the Port Zante marina. To our surprise the Carnival shore excursion group also went with this company (price difference: $25 per person in our favor). The dive guide warned us about the reduced visibility because of the hurricane and he wasn't lying. This was actually the first time they'd gone diving this week and we had to visit the outermost reefs to ensure we could see more than 15 feet. It'll be months before the sea will be back to the usual 50+ feet viz. The dive sites were interesting, there was still lots to see and the dive pointed out several nice fishes and other sea creatures. The group was quite big and I was surprised there weren't two dive guides with us, which given the reduced viz I would have been more comfortable with. Luckily, we had mostly experienced divers in the group and we had no problems to speak of.
After the dives we went back to the Victory (5 minute walk from the marina) to clean up and have lunch. We went off again to shop a little in the port area, but apart from a hat (which I lost in Barbados) we didn't buy anything.
The road system provides easy access to various sites. Having said that, signage is a little off and we had to look around for some spots.
We wanted to visit Botany Bay and Marmaid's Chair, but apparently that's on private land. There as a closed gate on the road.
We did find some great views from the island, particularly the Valdemar Hill (Scenic Drive) overlook and Drake's Seat. St.Peter Great House is interesting, Coki beach is fun - however the neighborhood in front of it, isn't. We didn't care too much for downtown, too many shops selling the same stuff (jewelry and booze, which we're not interested in). The blackbeard and amber museums closed very early, even before 3PM so we couldn't visit these. The K-mart, which was recommended in guide books, is vastly overrated and uninteresting unless you need household items.