There are two cruise ship sources for porting out of Sand Juan - The Serenade of the Seas with Royal Caribbean and Carnival Victory. I'm a gold member with Royal Caribbean having sailed last with the Explorer of the Seas in January of 2006, but my first sailing ever was on the old Carnival Cruise liner TSS Carnivale and both my fond memories of that experience and what I thought was a better choice of ports (some I had been too and some new to me) helped decide on the Victory. I also kept in mind with this booking that Carnival usually draws the younger population and has several activities which would suit an 18 year old young lady while offering enough venues and events to suite my eclectic tastes. With all the info in hand, I made the booking at the earliest possible date as well as the reservations for flight, the 3 day pre-cruise stay at a hotel and the excursions on the three islands that would be new to me.
We flew into San Juan on Thursday, June 9th, on what would prove to be advantageous in that for the previous week or two the island had experienced several days of heavy rain and storms. In fact our Delta flight nearly had to divert for a short while to St. Thomas when we approached the airport for landing that afternoon and found a storm cell hovering and pouring down its wrath right on Luis Munoz International Airport. After circling a short while, the pilot decided to chance a 5 minute cleared window in the weather and so it was much more of an adventurous landing than the usual swoop and dive I'd experienced 2 times before coming down on the landing strip not far from the resort beaches of Santa Carolina. With our huge amount of luggage in hand (two large and two medium suit cases, two back packs, a carryon bag and a camera bag as neither my daughter nor I know how to travel light) we found a taxis and headed for the hotel around 3:30 PM.
For our 3 nights pre-boarding stay I chose the Hilton Caribe in the Condado beach area of San Juan. It was located not far from Old San Juan and had various choices of lodging styles, several restaurants and shops, several pools, a small 16th century fort of San Geronimo onsite and its own private beach. Now I had avidly researched this location inasmuch as I had any other facet of our voyage but what we found at the Caribe Hilton just floored me!! It was originally a casino resort dating back to the 50's where stars such as Joan Crawford would haunt when visiting. Yet what we found was no dated relic but an updated tangle of towers, lush gardens, sparkling pools with a magnificent view of the North coast and an enticing protected cove with a goodly sized white sparkling beach to play on. And the bathroom was huge with a glass walled and marbled giant shower with two types of showerhead and a marble bench to sit on within!!! (I soo want one of these at home someday!!!)So settled in our ocean view room with a fair sized balcony in the main tower, we cleaned up from the trip and decided to explore.
One thing we had to get used to is that the sun sets much earlier in Puerto Rico and the other Islands than at home. Though farther East on the globe, San Juan and ship's time are the same as the mainland US east coast and so sunset would be around 7PM instead of around 8-9PM back home. We had enough light left to walk around and explore all the pool areas, the beach and shops before deciding on a place to eat. Though all of the restaurants are a bit on the pricey side, each offer a different venue and a variety of meal choices. I don't mind paying a price if the food is good, the atmosphere relaxing and the local convenient for two travel weary people. We settled on the sushi/Oriental place in the rain forest section of the grounds and sat out on the deck amidst tall towering vine draped trees, gurgling streams flowing into placid ponds and listening to the Coque frogs sing (the national animal of Puerto Rico that we would hear every night in port) and the cry of the peacocks and geese that strutted around the ponds. A moonlight stroll on the beach (luckily we chose to travel when the moon was waxing full) and hanging out on the balcony to feel the cooling trade winds and hear the surf pound around the fortress of San Geronimo and we were ready to collapse.
Friday the 10th was our first full day on the island and after sleeping in a bit, we decided to explore Old San Juan. Now one thing I hadn't yet mentioned was the traffic. Both the ride from the airport and each time we went into town and subsequently the port, we found the roads a mess. Such is not normal, albeit none would ever call the traffic there exactly calm, but we soon found that the following Tuesday President Obama would be the first president to visit the island since John F Kennedy. There was thus a lot of road work, building refurbishment and line painting let alone heavier security to prepare for what would only be a 5 hour visit!! Well, we just had to be a bit more patient and didn't let it mar the excitement we had for being where we are and got into the old city just fine if at a bit more sedate rate than usual.
Having been there last in 2006, I still had to re-familiarize myself with the layout of old town. The hilly and winding streets can get confusing until you figure which streets cut across and which go the length of the town. We rambled about for the better part of that day from the harbor at its foot to the El Morro fort at the top visiting all the shops and squares along the way. My daughter is a shutterbug with a camera and was getting great shots along the way and amused by the pigeons in the square which you could feed and would alight upon you in a mad mob. I took her to La Barrachina where the first Pina Colada was made 50 years ago) for Britt's first legal drink along with a super lunch as I expected from my last visit. Now she did have one at the hotel as well since they too claim to have invented it 50 years ago but both were quite good!!
After scoping out the shops we found ourselves at the top of the hill and so went to tour El Castillo de San Felipe del Morro. The only time I had been there before was in 1983. I remembered very little of it and I'm sure the 17 year old I was then was ready to get on with the other sites on a one day port call. So for Britt's first visit and my second, we gave it a thorough exploration and took lots of photographs while I explained to her about the workings of the structure and its history from the Rennaisance colonial era through the Spanish American war. It was early afternoon and being hot and winded from the climb up the hill, around the fort and back down through town, we retreated to the hotel and had a relaxing swim at the beach and in the larger pool with the two levels of cascades which were fun to cool off under.
After resting and cleaning up, as night fell we went back into the Old town so Britt could see it lit up for Friday night. One of the places I'd read about on Cruise Critic was where we had dinner. Latin Roots is a nice Cantina that serves good food and has a full bar. More than that, it has various forms of Latino dancing with live bands. If you do not know the steps, they have instructors that will teach you the moves so that the tourists can enjoy the dance floor as well as the locals who make it their late night haunt. We chose not to stay for the dancing but explored the city by night and shopped in some gift stores still open before deciding to taxis back to the hotel. The ride back was itself an adventure.
For the most part, both the Taxis and their drivers in San Juan are excellent. In my four times on the island I never had one that was anywhere near questionable. Well heading back that Friday night the man running the taxis stand put us in the car of what had to be a novice driver. He was a bit twitchy, didn't seem to know his way around that well and was muttering to himself about the congested traffic while zipping in and out of lanes; even into oncoming traffic! I should have known how it would be when they put us in a car instead of the usual jeep or minibus let alone that the windshield was cracked and the car likely built 15 years before the rather young driver!! Well we made it safe and were cracking up about the whole experience. When on vacation, weird things will happen!
Anyroad, we took a walk around the grounds of the resort by night and found that the pier sticking out into the ocean had a light at its end shining on the ocean below. Shoals of sand and coral are outside the beach area and the water is clear enough by day but more so by night to watch various schools of fish swimming. To our surprise there were some huge fish out at night and after watching them for a short while hunting smaller prey we realized that they were barracuda! As well as chasing don and gulping up the small fry, they were tossing in the water giving us the fish-eye like we were the main course for dinner and showing us what big sharp teeth they had! Luckily, we never saw them out in the daytime and they seemed to be kept outside the beach cove by the tide break.
Saturday was our last full day ashore so we returned to do some real shopping. I noticed that I had gotten a good deal of sun on my face, neck and shoulders where they shown through the v-neck T so I bought a Panama Hat. This also helped during the brief spat of showers which I told Britt would happen sometimes in the tropical climate. But our main target for shopping was in the high rent district along Calle de Christo. Here you find the outlet stores for designer brands such as Tommy Hillfigger, Burberry, Ralph Lauren, Guess, Coach, Dooney & Bourke and their likes. The prices were reasonable so my daughter snatched up a purse and coin clutch set with excitement. We also found a marshals to buy the white tank tops I forgot to pack (thankfully our only omission) and found other items in brands rarely seen in Oklahoma where we live. And I also bought at one of the local stores the white linen shirt and pants sets seen throughout the islands since they were at a good bargain price.
After another afternoon on the beach, the pools and having dinner and then Pina Coladas at the bar, we packed up in anticipation for embarkation the next day with thrilled anticipation of the next leg of our trip. For our entire stay, not one cruise ship seemed to have made call into port since it is more of the off season in June and throughout Hurricane season. So we enjoyed the first site of the Carnival Victory and, across the bay, Serenade of the Seas when we made it portside. We were a bit early out but found a shady spot on the quay to wait till allowed in and had a splendid pause watching all the guests from the previous voyage stream out and head for parts unknown.
We were some of the first ones through the gate when it was opened to us and the embarkation process was very smooth and quickly done. At 1230PM on Saturday, June 12th, we were allowed onboard and immediately went upstairs to have lunch in the Mediterranean. I agree with most people when saying its layout is not all conducive to forming a line and passing through the stations but we never had to deal with very long waits nor experienced the jostling or line cutting that some have complained about. And the food was the good usual cruise fare and I never had a meal on the ship that was not both beautiful nor delicious. The only thing I would not like for the whole trip was their bacon. Either the brand or the way they fried it gave it an odd taste so I stuck to the yummy ham and sausage for breakfast instead!
Oh, before I forget. If you have room in your luggage bring an empty go cup- the insulated kind you find in convenience stores. There is always at least, Ice, an unmarked water tap and a drinks machine with Lemonade, juices and tea offered with no extra cost as is soda (what we call pop). I would always run up for a refill and fill up before going off ship as I'm used to having one close by back home. Why people don't take advantage of this I will never know and you could see several people on board wishing they'd learn the trick as I had (with many others) by reading the boards on Cruise Critic!
We spent the next two hours exploring the ship, getting the drink of the day (yes, the specials are good and usually the strongest) and, of course, getting lost several times. We did so less and less through the trip and by the time it was the end of the sail we had it down pat. 2 hours later we were allowed to see our cabin. We booked a port side premium extended balcony on the Verandah Deck (Deck 8 - Cabin 8428) and man did they mean premium. The fantail balconies are huge on Carnival's ships but those on the back corner are enormous with the largest two being one either side of the end of deck 8. The cabin itself was roomy with a queen bed, large couch, plenty of closet space, drawer space and a bathroom not too large but not too small (got spoiled at the Hilton) but the balcony had more square footage than the room itself which proved fine by us as we spent much time there luxuriating in the view and the peaceful haven it gave on a ship with over 2000 people aboard. Our luggage arrived in time to get all squared before dinner and we met our Steward Fernando or Ferdinand (so bad with names) who always had a smile on his face and made sure all in our room was top notch.
The first night was anytime/anywhere dining but we went at what be our usual 6PM seating and at our assigned Pacific Dining room where we ended up sitting not far from what would be our regular table. Now the placement of the two dining rooms (the other is the Atlantic) can be confusing. Both are located at the back of the ship on decks 4 and 3 since there are two levels. The galley is in between so to get to the Atlantic, you use the elevators just aft of the Casino on Deck 5 and to reach the Pacific, the elevators beyond Club Artic even further aft on deck 5. Though not to be our table mates, we met a nice newlywed couple from the states who we ended up running into onboard or ashore for the rest of the sail joking that we were all stalking each other. And as I said before, the food was superb with a variety of choices, definitely more than one could eat with each portion and the wait staff went out of their way to make us feel special and at home.
Though not done on the first night, yes they do have the dining room staff do the song and dance number around desert time. I know it's a tried and true tradition for a cruise but not my cup of tea. The dining room can be chaotic enough to get people settled, fed all the courses, and then out before the next setting or for cleanup without the added chaos. It is the formal dining room and I would rather it not come down to a closeout of each meal making me feel I've gone to 5 star Chucky Cheese!! To me, this is more an issue than one wearing shorts in that culinary sanctum.
Exploring some more of the ship while waiting for muster drill and sail away, We came across the Ionian Room where one of the first trivia contests was being held. Its one of the few lounges that allow smoking as do the Casino and Club Artic area and being a smoker I was glad to find it as well as the other places outside of my own balcony to exercise my "nasty" habit! It was there that we met Turkey who ended up being our favorite of the many great members of the Cruise Director staff of led also by Karl with a "K" (the Cruise Director) Matt and Donkey. Each of them kept the fun going but Turkey had a rapport with my daughter and always seemed to go out of his way to make us feel at home and be involved in all the activities where we met up. And I was one answer away from winning the ship on a stick during that contest but didn't have the answer to the tie breaker.
The muster drill was the usual drawn out and tediously crowded mess I remembered but they have to do it. Then the magic hour of 10PM hit and the horn sounded for sail away from the port. Britt and I watched this at first from our aft balcony but after awhile I decided to show her the opposite view. I've read about the Victory's secret balconies on a recent review and true enough found them through an unmarked exit door all the way toward the bow on decks 6 and 7. (My daughter found two more higher up during the voyage. Though more breezy than the balcony, it was fun to watch the ship sail pass El Morro and also be able to look up and see what was happening on the bridge. The weather was perfect for taking the ship out and was the third time I've watched on deck as my ship made way out upon the high seas and was glad to have my daughter there to soak up her first experience of that magic!
We explored the shops after sail away and participated in some of the events that night. Every night there were various shows, sing alongs, trivia contests, game shows, comedy shows, dance shows....much more than I could enumerate. The ship alone could keep you constantly busy with one thing or another, other than drinking and gambling, and the stores had various items from the domestic to the luxurious. But as much as the ship was lovely, for me it was all about the ports and from these and what events I participated in, I would end up retiring by midnight to the room or just having a quiet moment on my balcony soaking it all in, watching the bright moonlit sea and hearing the waves. My daughter the night-owl, however, was often up till 3AM running with Josh or Nick who she met as fellow ship wanderers so she was kept well entertained and in good company when I pooped out from too much fun!!!!
On to the voyage and the ports! Monday, June 13th, saw us in St. Thomas which would be for my 3rd time. I thus decided not to take an excursion package since I knew the place pretty well but go see some things I'd yet to visit in 1983 or 2006. We hopped in a taxi and got an extra tour when two other couples were first taken to the other side of the island to Megan's bay. I've always found St. Thomas to be a lovely place and said its where I want to retire one day. I now believe so even more having seen more of the interior and some of the beaches other than my favorite Honeymoon Beach on Water Island. And we got that little extra tour for just $5 each to end up at Black Beard's Castle at that.
Black Beard's castle could be deemed a tourist trap by some, but my daughter is of a generation who love that genre thanks to growing up watching the Pirate's of the Caribbean movies. There was pirate history, statues, relics and gifts enough to sate ones piratical appetite and the view from the tower was amazing. We also enjoyed the period houses they had full of antiques but the best part, to me, was the Amber Museum. I design jewelry on the side and use amber quite often in my works and so was in lust with all the pieces they had for show and sale in the museum. The extra surprise was waiting at the entrance and though appropriate to the story around the formation of amber was not quite something I expected outside of the Orlando area. I would tell you what it was but wouldn't want to spoil the thrill it gives. And the amber waterfall is as gorgeous as they say and I would LOVE to have put it in my suitcase.
It was on to shopping and seeing the sites of downtown Charlotte Amalie next. Now I know St Thomas has always been known for its wholesale jewelry shops but enough is enough!!! I was appalled to find that for every five of these there was maybe one shop with souvenirs, antiques, clothing or any other item other than bling! I swear I had retina burn from too many sparklies and that was not what I was looking for. They did provide Britt, however, with a scavenger hunt on this and the other island. The coupons they give out for mainly jewelry stores when you go into port do work and she had a collection of bracelets with charms from each port, prints of paintings depicting the island visited and even semi precious ½ carat gemstone solitaire necklaces for free!
Luckily, one thing that didn't change was that The Greenhouse restaurant was still where I left it in 2006. This is covered open-air eatery located along the water front drive where a nice breeze can cool you off in the shade after shopping yourself silly and where you have a gorgeous view of the bay looking across to the ships ported at Havensite. The food there is a good sampling of Caribbean fair for a reasonable price and is a great setting to relax and enjoy the local scenery. I must also commend the staff there. Last visit it had several waitresses but this time had very few and our waitress was having to deal with too many tables on a cruise arrival day. Nonetheless she served us with a smile and continues to make it a must see each time I arrive on the island.
We taxied back to the port and exhausted ourselves in all the stores there. It was especially fun to ogle the lux items in the new Yacht Club addition and I had many lustful intentions for the back packs in the Louis Vuitton store! We dragged our tired selves back to the ship in time to cleanup before sailing off where Britt and I started our daily tradition of snapping shot of the port around us and watching the ship maneuver out to sea again before going to eat and play on the ship. We also made sure to take our passports down to Guest Relations so that we could have them stamped at the foreign ports - another tip found on Cruise Critic!!
What would have been Dominica was our day at sea on Tuesday, June 14th. Would have loved to see that island but it was a nice break to have at least one day not needing to rush to the pier to meet an excursion bright and early. While Britt slept in (till 1PM) I woke around eight, went up to get breakfast and bring it back one deck down from the Mediterranean to eat in the peace of my balcony. Yes, you can do that and set the tray outside the room for pickup when done. You can also order from a wide menu of room service at all hours and have a quiet meal or snack in the cabin if you wished and for no extra charge - just a tip to the one delivering. I mean your on a ship with 2400 + people and its nice to find a niche (or so I found) away from the constant hustle and bustle now and then. Your balcony and, especially, your HUGE balcony if you luck into booking one will be your friend!!!
I spent time sunning on the balcony as well until Britt woke in time for a late lunch and then we joined the mayhem of the Lido deck pools where we lucked in getting two lounge chairs right near the pool. Between that and the balcony I got a little bit too much sun as its way strong in the tropics during June, but I wanted some color! The pools were a nice cool temperature although you do have to dodge the splashing kids. I could also have done less with music constantly blaring out topside but it is supposed to be a party atmosphere. And I discovered the collectors drink cups they started to offer that day when I saw a woman drinking out of a huge plastic whale tail! I just had to have one as well as the disco ball they offered later on after dinner during the shows and dances that kept us up later than we probably should have been with a port day coming once more.
Wednesday, June 15th, found us sailing into Bridgetown Barbados. Which I must say was my least favorite of the islands. I used to work with natives of the Island (Bejans) and heard many things about the Island but was surprised to find it a jumble. We took the beach and shopping tour in which I wasn't all that impressed with the shopping although the beach at Caraway was a nice escape from the traffic and mix matched neighborhoods. The water was very clear and we could see fish swimming around us and one man found a huge red starfish. What I didn't like was the hawkers who CONSTANTLY harrased you when you were trying to relax. Other islands would have this too but the Bajan peddlers seemed overly intrusive! Its not a place I would seek out again but was an interesting experience.
Thursday, June 16th, saw us in Castries, St. Lucia which was the most wild and lovely of all the islands in this cruise. When one envisions a tropical paradise, St Lucia fits it to a tea. We took the Land and Sea tour to Souffrie which was a wonderful bus tour all along the winding roads in a bust through rain forest jungles with the most beautiful plant life I've yet seen. It took us through two fishing villages and ended at the foot of the Pitons for which the island is known to the city of Souffrie at the base of an active volcano. We toured a botanical garden full of gorgeous flowers and I finally saw what has to be my favorite tree - the Cocoa tree from whose seed pods chocolate is made. We experienced the volcano's heat from the warm springs waterfall that cascades into the gardens and then I bought some cocoa sticks made onsite from the raw beans grown right there!!
The next leg was to board a large catamaran at the Souffrie port where we had lunch and then a cruise beneath the Pitons over to a black sand beach. We swam and drank rum punch while fending off venders who always called you "my friend" and tried to hawk Chinese made hematite jewelry as stone from their volcano! I work with the stuff and I know better!! We cruised back around the island back to the port in Castries. At the mouth of the port is a small airport and we lucked out just to be passing that point when a large prop plane came zooming down just above the boat to a landing! This was sort of a foreshadowing of what we would later see in St, Martin. The catamaran brought us back near the ship and with time to spare Britt and I went on the Victory to freshen up before shopping.
There were the usual gift shops, diamond stores and duty free businesses in the port shopping area of St. Lucia, but there was one that really caught our attention. Oklahoma has a restaurant and clothing chain out of Stilwater (home of Oklahoma State University) known as Eskimo Joe's. Imagine our surprise when we ran into a store like it with a Caribbean twist known as Piranha Joe's!! We would come to find this shop at the subsequent islands but In St. Lucia I bought us each a shirt and myself a hat, a small duffle bag in St, Kitts and from the one in St. Martin a light weight hoodie. It was like finding a taste of home while out and abroad island hopping for the rest of the cruise.
On Friday, June 17th, we made port in Basterre St. Kitts. This was a rugged volcanic island in comparison to St. Lucia but with less potholes in the road. It doesn't seem to get as much rain as St. Lucia and is covered in small acacia thorn bushes. Whereas underneath the lush tropical plants of St. Lucia was a loose pebbly grabben much like the Hollywood Hills, St. Kitts was dark and craggy from old flows of black basalt which gave it a character of it's own. St. Kitts also had what was our favorite beach which we came to on the Beach Extravaganza offered by Carnival.
The tour takes you across the island by bus or vans to a peninsula which separates the Atlantic side from the Caribbean side of the island. The final destination is Cockleshell beach which is a broad expanse of sugar white sand beach with a magnificent view of the sister island Nevis across the bay. As well as the gorgeous scenery and lovely shade trees to rest under on our lounge chairs, the beach had the one thing we hadn't seen in all the shores we'd explored - this beach had a plethora of seashells!
Within moments of hitting the water, we were bringing up fistfuls of all sorts of shells. The dominant type were angel wing shaped with tan and white tiger stripes along with cockle shells, sea snails, horn coral and the like. As I mentioned before, I design jewelry and immediately saw that I could find enough to make several fan like necklaces to which the shape of the striped shells would be perfect. Britt meanwhile got pampered with an aloe foot massage which along with the dude with the green monkey was one of the local money making ventures. Again, back in port what did we do? Shop till we dropped with, of course, Piranha Joe one of our must do stops!
Finally we come to the last port call on Saturday, June 18th, in St. Martin. The last time I took ship into Philipsburg, I took off to Orient beach for the day and came back to shop my way to the ship. This time I wanted to explore further inland and explore the West side of the island as opposed to the East as I did before. So we took a taxi over to the capital of the French side, to Marigot, where we found an open air market with more of the unusual gift items that one would not see in a store. There were people there speaking pure French unlike the Creole or Patoise one normally hear in the islands and thus gives one more of a feeling of being in a bit of the Riviera in the Caribbean. We also went to local chocolate shops and a mall with designers rarely seen in the states and all marked in Euros.
But that was but the first stop. We hopped in a taxis again and made our way around the west coast to Maho Beach and the Sunset Grill. This is the plane watchers paradise where you can watch the small aircraft and huge jets approach just a few feet above your head over the beach before landing at the nearby strip at Princess Julianna airport. It also where the foolish can stand on the beach or hang on the fence across the narrow road and be blasted in the backwash from jets taking off. The Grill, where we went, is the place for the more sane to eat and drink on the shaded patio to watch and photograph the landings or takeoffs without instant sand dermabrasion! The perfect time seems to be from 12 noon until a little after 2 PM when the Air France flight comes roaring in.
They make a mean pizza there and the staff are very friendly. To commemorate your visit they have several styles of t-shirts but I bought us both one of the "Get Blown at the Sunset Grill" designs. After the air France landing we had time for the drive back to port through the resort and party town of Simpson Bay but being off season there was only one mega yacht in the bay instead of hundreds. We shopped for cigars, a Piranha Joe jackets, sling bags and various other last minute souvenirs before boarding ship for the last time.
Disembarking went very smooth. We had packed and set out our bags the night before, ate breakfast in the morning and hung out with people we had met on the cruise just talking until our number was called. It is a bit of a slog dragging the bags through customs but we were through them with no hassle rather quick. Although I had paid for transfer to the airport, somehow I never received a voucher and was not on the list. I would suggest checking on this when you board to save the taxi fare and having the travel agent track down the issues later on.
To close this long review, let me say this cruise is one more for the active. It is very port intensive and is constantly go-go-go. Although its not about the ships for me, the Carnival Victory is a lovely lady with all the amenities one would need for a cruise where you spend a lot of time ashore. Her crew are the most friendly and gracious I have seen on any cruise line or any other facet of the travel industry and they really work to make you feel at home and involved. As intense as this voyage has been for the passengers, one can tell it is even more so for the crew but they never failed to show a vivid love for what they do which is making the cruise a trip of a lifetime. It was a joy to take my daughter on this cruise as the perfect travel mate and I loved how the crew, the ship and the ports lived up to the adventure I had planned for us to have together.