Our trip began with an early morning flight from Virginia to San Juan, one day prior to embarkation. I will comment about Old San Juan here, and our hotel, since we stayed there before the cruise.
It was raining when we arrived in San Juan, we got our bags and headed to the taxi. They have a Dispatch line for local taxis, and they give you the rate up front. For the pair of us, the fair was $19, plus $3 for our 3 bags = $22. I gave him $25 when we got to our hotel in Old San Juan. By the time we got to OSJ, the sun was peeking out, and it was lovely.
We stayed at SOFO Hotel Casa Blanca on Calle de Fortaleza. I cannot say enough about this ideal location. We were just a few minutes walk to EVERYTHING in Old San Juan. Including piers 1-4, the Carnival pier was pier 4. It was about 2 blocks down hill, and one block over from our hotel, and there was plenty of room to cart our bags when we left the next day.
Our room was ice cold when we arrived, very clean, charming, and tiny. It's everything we expected based on the research we had done. The hotel staff (one is native to Pennsylvania, and she was a great help for local recommendations and advice), was helpful. There is no elevator, but we needed to stretch our legs a little after flying. We paid $99 per night through Orbiz.com (same price as the hotel's website).
We had been to Old San Juan once before as a stop on our last cruise for a few hours. But it was really cool to have a day before and after our cruise this time to spend time in San Juan.
Several cool restaurants are on the same street and around the corner from our hotel. We were close to a plaza south of the fort San Cristobal, which features local artisans. We had dinner at Cafe Puerto Rico, which was really quite good, and after two dinners, two sangria's, and a dessert, we paid about $60. Had mofongo with grouper and chicken with yellow rice. There are a million places to eat in OSJ, but this was a good one.
The next morning, we got up and walked around the corner to Starbucks to get coffee. Then we walked uphill to the San Cristobal fort (tour this if you haven't done it - it's a US Nat. Park, so everything is in English, and it only costs $4 each). We spent a couple hours and then walked back to the hotel by 10:45, showered, changed, and got all our luggage in order to embark.
After we checked out of the hotel, it took about 10 minutes to walk down to the ship terminal. It was about 12 noon. There was virtually no line to enter, no line to drop off our luggage, and only about 15 people in front of us to go through the check-in line. I think because of the LATE departure, and embarkation is so spread out, that there is never a huge rush or line to board.
We actually got done and got our Sign & Sail passes before they were letting people on the ship. We had to wait about 20 minutes or so, so we walked around the duty free shops. Then about 1:00pm they let us through security by zones, and onto the ship. Once on, we went up to the Lido and had a big long lunch.
The weather outside had been beautiful all morning, but at lunch, it started pouring! So we made great timing. We laid by the aft pool after lunch, which was covered. Then after a brief exploration of the ship we went up to our cabin (about 2:45).
Since it was raining, we decided to go ahead and unpack and relax a bit. Our cabin was an accessible room (even though neither of us is in a wheelchair) and it gave us a little more space. We went off the ship again around 4 when the rain let up. We knew we wanted to do some souvenir shopping and stop by the grocery store and Walgreen's for some snacks and soft drinks to carry on board.
We got off the ship and caught the free trolley at stop number 1 or 2 I think, right outside the terminal. We rode that around to El Morro, toured it again (an additional $2 each after we paid for the other fort), and then we slowly walked ourselves back through town, taking it all in.
We stopped at a Supermax, and Walgreen's, next door to each other on the West side of town. Purchased soft drinks and bottled water, and some trail mix, then walked back to the ship by around 6:30. If the weather had not been a little drizzly, we would have stayed out by the board walk longer - there are some local musicians and artisans.
Got back on the ship, took our stuff to the cabin, and then went to open-seating diner by 7:00pm. There is no assigned dinner the first night. We enjoyed it a lot. In fact, it was better than our dinner the rest of the week. Our regular waiter had an extra table all week, so our service took a while every night. Don't get me wrong, Edgar (waiter) and Jorge (asst. waiter) were awesome and fun, but it just took a while. (Also, I will mention here that we usually had lunch off the ship because of excursions, but the Victory has only two main buffet lines instead of the 4 on our last ship, and you notice the lines unfortunately). That's our only actual complaint about the Victory, just slower dining and longer lines at the buffet. Everything else was great or better.
After dinner we had a short muster drill, sans life vests. Then off to the deck party at sail away!
Next stop, St. Thomas!
This was an ALL day excursion, including drinks and lunch on an outstanding cat, with a great skipper. Capt. Ron is a native to the Island, but he's an old white guy, who looks like a cross between Dale Earnheart and Jimmy Buffet. I recommend using Capt. Ron in a MAJOR way! It was only $75 per person (plus we tipped the mate and bought a t-shirt). This was the underwater highlight of our week!
One word of caution: Captain Ron had emailed me to confirm our booking a couple weeks before (we had booked about 6 weeks in advance). He told me to meet him outside the main gate at the round-a-bout. This turned out to be a tad confusing, and we almost missed the tour, which would have royally sucked!
When you get off the ship, you walk to the shops, and after you wind through them, you come to the door. Dozens of excursion people (Carnival people) stop you to ask where you're headed. It is a covered area right outside the shops, and it resembles the check-out area of Sam's club. There are about 8 "gates" that are like a check-out counter with a number. and there is a taxi dispatch station across a parking lot from you, and a small round-a-bout by gate 8. Here's the problem - THIS IS NOT THE "MAIN" GATE! These are just used by several excursions as the pick-up spot.
Captain Ron doesn't like to go inside this parking lot area. Instead, we were supposed to meet him ACROSS THE PARKING LOT, OUTSIDE the FENCE (about 100 yards from these "gates"). We waited at gate 8, because that's where some of the "officials" told us to meet Capt. Ron. We got there at 8:55am, to meet him between 9 and 9:15. By 9:30 we still hadn't seen him, and I went inside to ask. finally, someone told me that the "round-a-bout" I was looking for was actually by the Fence outside. We RAN out there to try not to miss the tour.
This is where I give Capt. Ron my sincere thanks for waiting. He was about to leave, but gladly took us on the tour, just a few minutes late. We were with 3 other ladies from the ship, and Ron drove us in his van to his boat about 10 minutes away. When we boarded, there were 4 Brits and a couple from San Francisco already on board waiting for us (I told them sorry).
After about 5-10 more minutes we were motoring out of the marina to the ocean. WHEW! Let me reiterate, this was OUR mistake for not going across the parking lot to meet Capt. Ron. Ron and his mate were GREAT, and provided excellent service for the rest of the day.
I cannot put into words how awesome this trip was. We sailed for a while, enjoyed some fresh fruit smoothies (or soft drinks) on the way out. We sailed past our ship, and up the Western coast, and our guide pointed out some of the sights. A really nice, big, clean vessel, and we only had a dozen passengers (compared to the ship's excursion, with a cat only slightly bigger with about 50+ people each). This was a relaxing day for sure.
First stop was to see the sea turtles. Our guide attracted them with a few little pieces of bait, and instantly, we had about 5-6 HUGE sea turtles swimming right up to us. They were beautiful beyond words. Got lots of underwater pictures and video. We probably had 15-20 minutes in the water with them, but it felt like 5. Time FLEW!
Then back on board the boat, to sail to the next stop about 15 minutes up the coast.
We snorkeled for at least 30-40 minutes at the two shipwrecks. Thousands of tropical fish, and some colorful reef. We always take some corn flakes from the breakfast line on the ship, and then use it as food to get the fish close. IT WORKS!!
Both snorkeling stops, turtles and the reefs, were only about 100 yards from shore, if not closer. There were other boats there, too, but they weren't close enough to us that we ever bumped into anyone. Only twelve people on our boat, and only 11 of us got in the water, so you seldom if ever swam into anyone. We took our own snorkeling gear, but Ron had gear and fins if we needed them.
Then we went back up to the boat for an amazing lunch of jerk chicken, and "flying fish", coleslaw, beans and rice, plantains/bananas, and banana bread. Plenty of tasty food, with Bajan seasoning (things from Barbados are called Bajan - like Asian with a B in front). YUMMY!!!
Eventually, we set sail back down the coast, enjoyed some frozen cocktails and beer and soft drinks all the way to another beach. We ran out of time to walk on the beach, so we just stayed on the boat there for a few minutes, before heading into the marina.
It all depends on the winds, which were good that day. Ron is an experienced skipper with several sailing wins in his history. One of the Brits on our boat is an amateur competition sailor, and he was having fun pitching in to "grind" the sails in and out during our sail.
If I ever go back to Barbados, I'd love to go again with Ron. This was as close as you can get to a perfect excursion (aside from our own mistake in not meeting the captain at the MAIN gate). Next time we will know better.
We tipped the mate 10% ($15) and also bought a t-shirt from him for $17.50, and gave him a $20. Total cost = $75/pp plus tip and t-shirt = $185 for two.
We bought some Bajan seasoning at the port shops and got back on the ship to shower.
This was the only day we got sunburn. Ron didn't want us using the spray on sunscreen on the boat because it makes the deck slippery. We could spray into our hands and rub it on, but we didn't reapply after we got on the boat, so after a 5 hour trip, ours had worn off, and we burned. So, be careful to reapply once or twice so you can tan but not burn.
Once with our bags and through customs, we called Charilie's Rent a Car (we had reserved a 2 door car before we left for vacation). Their shuttle picked us up across the street from the cruise terminal. We were at the office in 10 minutes, and we were in our rental car after another 10 minutes. They gave us a 4 door for the same price ($23). That's the same price of one cab ride from Old San Juan to the airport, and we spent less than $20 in gas, so it was WELL worth it to rent the car. We took our GPS from home, a 2009 Garmin, and it got us everywhere we wanted to go without a problem.
We went to El Yunque Rain forest, paid the $4 per person to go to the visitor's center - which was almost a waste, because all we did was use the bathroom to change into our bathing suits and picked up a map. Then we drove to the top of the mountain, walked the trails, went to the peak ( a long hike, so don't do this unless you like to hike). But the views were amazing!
Then we drove back down to La Mina falls' entrance. It was a longer hike down than we expected (but I think there was an entrance further down the road that was closer to the actual falls...whatever, we missed it, but no biggie, because we're in shape). The falls were amazing. Gorgeous, and ice cold. Be careful on the slippery rocks, but if you're brave you can swim under the falls and stand. It was an adventurous, romantic moment to cap off our vacation.
We walked back to the top, changed in the bathroom back into some dry clothes, and got in our car.
After we left the rain forest, we should have headed back to Old San Juan (where we once again stayed at Hotel Casa Blanca), but instead we tried to drive around to find a restaurant near Fajardo. But after an hour we never really found a restaurant we wanted to stop into. It was mostly bars and noisy.
In hindsight, we would have gone back to Old San Juan, instead we stopped at Che's near Isla Verde. It was just as expensive as restaurants in OSJ. And although our room was only $99, it might have been nicer to stay near the airport since our flight the next morning was so early.
Here is a good tip. We parked the car in the municipal parking lot in OSJ down between the cruise piers and the fountain near El Morro. There is a big plaza there, but I don't remember the name. It would have only been $5 for an overnight parking (opposed to the $17 it would have been in a parking deck a block closer to our hotel). And it was a nice 3 block walk to the hotel in the evening. When we got up to leave the next morning, the municipal lot was actually open, so we didn't even have to pay to park at all. We drove to the Isla Verde location for Charlie's, returned the car, and got the free shuttle to the airport.
Our last day in PR was nice, especially spending plenty of time in El Yunque. Be prepared to pay the $1.50 toll each way on the highway to the rainforest and back. Plus, it cost us about $16 in gas. and the rental was $23 - we waived all the insurance, as our company assured us we were covered even in Puerto Rico. Charlie's does want to see a copy of your auto policy upon rental, though.
Total - rental and gas, $31, rainforest visitor's center $8, tolls $3 = $42
The day before the cruise and the day after, both in Old San Juan was well worth it. We got to bypass the stress of disembarking and flying in the same day at a busy port with two ships.
Now, I have to admit, at first this seemed a little sketchy. But in hindsight, this was actually pretty cool. David lives next door to the entrance of the rain forest and botanical gardens, where there are the remains of the old aqueduct system. It's actually really nice. David grabbed his hiking boots and some supplies, and the other couple with us got out to go on their tour of the rain forest.
My wife and I were the only two going with David up the volcano, and that says a TON about the kind of guy David is. Who else would take just two people on an all-day excursion?!? We go to see so much of the island as we made our way out to the base of the volcano. Then we began our adventure.
It's about 2.5 miles up, and 2.5 miles back down the trail. This is strenuous, but exciting. We are both in pretty good shape, and we were drenched in sweat by the time we got to the top, but we never felt exhausted. It's not dangerous at all, especially with David guiding us the whole time. He showed us all the local trees and we even saw some monkeys in the trees above us early in our hike.
We came upon some Americans who were trying to do the hike themselves, but David was concerned that they might get lost at some of the forks in the trail. He asked if they wanted to join our tour, but at first they hesitated - I think they wanted to save money. But as the hike went on, David kept stopping to let their group catch up. David was kindof a Good Samaritan, being very kind to them. Eventually, we all just stuck together.
When we made it to the top, David helped us traverse the rocks at the peak to get to the lookout area. It was breathtaking to see down into the volcano crater 1,000 feet, and to see out over the ocean. It was not a very clear day, but we still saw a lot. On clearer (albeit hotter) days you can see 5 other islands in the Caribbean. We took many pictures - all the sweat and burning muscles disappeared with the adrenaline of seeing these sights. There was a great breeze too, that cooled us off. David called it his Air Conditioning for the tour! HAHA.
He gave us each a fresh Mango from his garden, and it was THE BEST piece of fruit I've ever put in my mouth. It was so juicy it went all over my face, and it melted in our mouths. He also gave us each a generous portion of raisin bread, and some fresh fruit juice. We had bottles of water along the way up and back down, too.
It took us a record 90 minutes to get up, and David usually budgets 2 hours. So I guess we went more swiftly than some folks. It was great exercise on a long cruise where all you do is eat tons of good food. Our bodies thanked us.
Take comfortable shoes, and clothes that can get wet and dirty. We live in North Carolina, and I'm from Virginia, and I liken the hike to a section of the Appalachian Trail, only tropical. It's a rain forest, after all!
After we descended the mountain, we got back in David's truck. It had been raining pretty hard during most of our descent (but in the rain forest, it rains on the trees, and you don't get too wet from that. We were soaked by the bottom, but it was probably half sweat). David still let us ride in the front with him, like we were part of his family. We shared some granola bars we had taken with us, and that was it. David WAS like family. What a nice guy!
He showed us more of the island than we paid for. (Luckily the other Americans gave him some money for his guidance, even though they weren't on the tour). We stopped along the way to get a cold beer (and soft drink), and then David took us around to the other side of the island, to Shipwreck beach, and the Monkey Bar. We got lots of pictures before he took us back to the port shops. He even advised us about some of the stores, where we could bypass the touristy places and see a local artisan craft market. We purchased some paintings there. And before David left us, he even advised us about getting drinks and food from the little stands instead of the bar ($2 at a cooler, $5 at the bar for the same beverages). Poinciana Tours, and the proprietor David, are TOP NOTCH!
Total - $70/pp for the trip, and we tipped David $30 because he was so great. = $170 for the two of us.
We did the Land & Sea Adventure, which began with an air-conditioned van ride (picked us up outside the port shops at 8:30am), and we toured through Castries. Our driver, Neptune, spoke very good English, and answered all our questions about the island. We stopped several times to take pictures and buy souvenirs at local vendors.
We saw a banana plantation, tasted a local "magic" bread, and some local cakes made with flour from a root vegetable. All delicious. Also stopped to try some coconut water from a fresh coconut, and take pictures with a boa constrictor. We also saw the sulfur springs in the volcano crater. and an overlook of the town of Soufries (sp). There we got off the van and boarded a power boat, which took us to Jalousie beach between the famous Pitons. AMAZING, Breathtaking views! The lunch was box style with chicken, ribs, rice & beans, breadfruit, banana, and coleslaw. During the whole trip we had a cooler full of drinks (water, soft drinks, Piton beer (which is really good), and Spencer's homemade rum punch). Let me just say one thing about the rum punch - most places in the Caribbean basically put rum in kool aid and call it rum punch. Not Spencer. This was absolutely delicious, and we are not drinkers. He puts Orange, Pineapple, and Grapefruit juice, grenadine, nutmeg, and cinnamon, and local rum and it tastes out of this world!
Snorkeling between the Pitons was AWESOME, lots of people scuba there, too. There is a small section of public beach, and a long private beach that is part of the resort. We had a little over 2 hours there, and it was just enough to eat, snorkel all we wanted, and shower off at the bath house. The Pitons are about 2,500 feet up each, and the snorkeling is close to the smaller piton, in about 6-30 feet of water. But there is a rope to mark the boundary for snorkeling, under which the bottom drops from 30 feet to about 250 feet deep! It's BEAUTIFUL!
After our long stay on the beach, we boarded Spencer's power boats again, and cruised back up the coast, stopping in several places to see the bat cave, resorts, and the arch where they filmed a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean. All of it was amazing, the weather was awesome, and this was the bet overall excursion we took.
$85/pp, plus $20 tip, and we bought a few souvenirs at the port shops before we got back on the cruise ship. = $190 for the excursion.
Last but not least, Spencer is a really nice man. Used to be a police officer on the Island, before starting his tour company. We always felt very safe, and people in every village were extremely nice and friendly. Spencer collects school supplies for underprivileged school children on the Island. So we took some coloring books, loose leaf paper, pencils, pens, crayons, and erasers. Consider giving a few things if you go, if for no other reason than it felt REALLY good inside to know we gave back to the locals who were so nice to us on our trip.
There is one exception! The Belgian Chocolate Shop. they have a location on a cross street from Front St. in Philipsburg, and another location near the ship. UNBELIEVABLE tasting chocolate. Truly delicious. You will eat everything you buy, guaranteed. That's why they have free delivery to your stateroom if you actually want to buy some to take home. Because once you've tasted it, you have to eat it all.
We took the ferry from the ship to downtown ($6 per person round trip), and then because of the weather, we decided to let a taxi driver take us on an island tour instead of going to a beach to snorkel. He drove us around the whole island. Our first stop was in the French side capital Marigot. This was a LOVELY little town on a bay. If I had a couple days to spend on the island, I would want to stay in Marigot. Loads of French restaurants, and local barbecue shops. I could eat all day there, it smells so good. The local craft market was the most polite and non-pushy market we've been to in the Caribbean. We met lots of local artists and bought some local pictures. The cabbie found us after our 25 minutes were up and hurried us back to the cab to go to the next stop.
We went to Orient Beach. Yes, there is a nude side. Yes, people were nude - people you do NOT want to see naked - old, fat, flabby - yuck! But that's just one end, the rest of the beach is quite beautiful. If it had been sunny, it would have been nicer.
The highlight of our tour was eating lunch at Pedro's. This was the best food we ate on vacation, including the ship food. The jerk chicken and rib dinner was enough for both of us to share and be full. It was about $17, which is about like you'd pay at outback in the states. It was amazing grilled food, and rice and beans were amazing, too. As soon as our food was done, the cab driver wanted to get going. So we traveled around the other side of the island back to Philipsburg. We shopped a little longer, then got on the ferry back to the ship.
Sat in the hot tub on the ship until sail away, as the weather was a little better, and partly sunny. That was not the case after dinner, when we sailed through a lot of rain.
We had visited St. Thomas before, so we wanted to go to St. John. It was very cloudy and a bit drizzly this morning when we got across to St. John. We paid I think $7 or $8 per person on St. John for a taxi to Trunk Bay (a beautiful beach with good snorkeling). The taxis in St. Thomas and St. John were open-air, covered top. They wait until the taxi is full before leaving, so be prepared to wait 10 minutes.
Once in Trunk Bay, the rain had stopped. We paid $4 per person to enter - it was like a state park, plenty of bathrooms, showers, and even a snack bar and a rental shop. We brought our own snorkel gear.
We picked a spot on the beach under some of the trees, where you can hang your bags. We had a beach bag and our little cooler (filled with soft drinks, sandwiches, and ice from our room steward).
We hit the water. And aside from a 15 minute downpour, it turned out to be a gorgeous sunny day and afternoon. The snorkeling is good (the water was not as clear as it can be, and the reef is not as colorful as some I've seen, but there are plenty of fish). They even have underwater signs at Trunk to guide your snorkeling...We got lots of underwater pics and beach pics.
Since we got to Trunk by 9:50AM, we were pretty tired and ready to leave by 2pm. We easily caught a taxi, just before dozens of local tourists (probably hotel guests rather than cruise people) descended upon the beach.
Ferry's to and from Cruz Bay and Red Hook leave every hour on the hour and take 20 mins. So we got back to Cruz Bay, had a drink at the beach bar as we waited for the 3pm ferry to board. Then we rode back to Red Hook, caught a taxi back to Havensight (cruise terminal) arrived by 3:45 and shopped for souvenirs until the ship sounded the first horn to be aboard. Had to be back on by 4:30, and we got on about 4:20.
All in all, this was an EXCELLENT beach day. I think it was fun to ride over to St. John, and the island over there is prettier than St. Thomas (which can look a little slummy in places). However, we know people who enjoyed Meagan's Bay and Coki Beach in St. Thomas. I think cab fares probably would add up to about the same total (minus the ferry ride) to do either.
Total cost - $10/pp each way cabs in St. Thomas, $6/pp each way ferry, $7/pp each way cab in St. John, $4/pp at Trunk Bay = $100.00
Day 2 was a sea day, and we SLEPT IN, and relaxed all day. Caught the adult comedy that evening, which was hilarious!