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A Trip to Caribbean Paradise
First impressions of RCI weren't that great. Upon arriving at the Pan-American pier, there was a long line to first wait for porters to take your checkin bags. The staff was friendly once we eventually reached the front of the line. After leaving your big bags with them you enter in to a large hall and aimlessly follow signs. There's a line per deck (our room was on deck 8). So that was another line to wait in. We thought this is where we'd also be told about drink packages and what not, but that was not the case. You just sort of check in and get your sea pass (credit card equivalent and ID for the entire trip). Then we actually stopped by at this duty free shop and someone suggested that we buy coke and water here now and that it would be a good idea for the cruise. Turned out to be true, I think. It was like $8 or so for a 12 pack, which was very useful as compared to paying $45 on the ship for unlimited soft drinks. We put the cans in the fridge in our More
room, so it turned out well. So you walk around and up on to the ship and there was another line where they checked our passes and ID's (actually there were like 3 such checkpoints, which got to be ridiculous). Especially now with these coke 12-packs and bottle of water, my hands were killing me through all this. Then you get on the ship and..... . Not a single person is there to tell you where you are or where you need to go. We eventually figured it out and got to our room, but I thought that was kind of strange.
We had upgraded two levels up to a balcony room; still we were surprised to find that our room was really tiny. I think that's normal for a cruise, but it was a surprise to me being it was my first time. Still, balcony was great and we were happy with the room in the long run.
Regarding the ports, I would say there is one important key. Do your research! I heavily read people's reviews on cruisecritic.com and I read a lot about each destination on tripadvisor.com. Those two sites were VERY helpful. I have included details of what we did at each of our 5 ports.
The dinners at Reflections were great. Our head waiter, Anthony, was an amazing guy. He went SO out of his way to watch after us that it was amazing. Food is unlimited on these cruises and there's always something available to eat. There were also some great drinks available, but of course those aren't free. Not crazy expensive either. It ranged from $5-$7 per drink. Not bad, given the environment. The ship definitely makes it's money on the drinks, though.
There were a couple of days were the ship really rocked quite a bit. We were lucky not to get sea sick, but it really moved. It's funny to see large groups of people all shifting left and right as we all walk down a hall way.
Casino - Real, quick I went here a couple of times. They have every kind of table game, which was awesome. Unexpected. I played 3 card poker, caribbean stud poker, roulette, and craps. This was over 3 nights. I'm happy to say I came out in the positive. That's quite an accomplishment over 3 nights, me thinks. Didn't win big... I was probably up like $20 net. But again, 3 nights worth of entertainment and you come away with anything from a casino and that's a win in my book.
Entertainment - We saw this comedian, Miguel twice. He was pretty funny. There was a magic show, which was really funny too. The magic wasn't all that amazing, but it was done in a hilarious way. We went to a game show called Quest. That was a LOT of fun. It's kind of like playing truth or dare crossed with a scavenger hunt, and all in a friendly competitive way. Definitely exciting. The cruise director, Ricky Matthews is really energetic. He knows how to get crowds going and all. He does a great job at what he's supposed to do. One cool thing I noticed was that the pool tables had this automatic stabilization thing on them. So even if the boat is rocking like crazy, the table stays completely flat. That was really cool. Other things to do... there are shops, there's a gym, there's pools, a club, a cigar lounge, all sorts of bars. You can get your pictures taken all the time and gather those. We bought a four 8x10 package at the end of it. Overall, there's plenty to do, but I'm still glad chose an itinerary which had more island stops that sea days. The islands were much more fun.
To see even more details about our trip, including factors on deciding a cruise and what we did in Puerto Rico, please see my complete blog post:
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Port and Shore Excursions
Can't complain much about Barbados. With no plans here, we sort of winged it again. I had read a lot about the catamaran tours on this island that take you to snorkeling sites and especially snorkeling with turtles. We were going to book a cat tour through RCI on this one, but they were sold out. So yeah, we took a taxi in to the town - walked around a bit and took some pictures and saw the shops down Broad Street. Then we negotiated with the same taxi dude to take us around the island. Ended up being $45 per person for the rest of the day. This was a smart dude... he made a stop at a random beach, which he must've known the owners and got some good kick-back. He said it was Turtle Bay, but someone else had mentioned that there was no such place. So I don't know... what it is. But even still he was a really nice guy and he did everything he said he would do. Plus even a bit more... So it's OK if the guy is kind of more openly business-savvy, again that's their livelihood. I'm OK with that, as long as you deliver.
Tour - We went all around the different parishes of this island. That's kind of what they call counties. Each one had a church, etc. We stopped at some really old churches, etc. Again, he was knowledgeable about the island and all that. There was a lot of discussion about the ocean-front properties that were going on sale there; with people getting paid like $8M for their small plot of land. We also saw some really nice gated communities. We saw the hotel and golf courses that Tiger Woods has booked for his wedding. We saw some celebrity houses, including Rihanna's place. She's Barbadian...
Turtle Bay - Again, not sure if that's really the name of it. It was a decent beach. More than that he took us there to stop at a bar. So we had a couple of drinks there before moving on. I think the issue at Barbados was that the waters were very rough and we witnessed it that red flags were up at all of the beaches; meaning the water is too rough to go in. So the place he stopped was kind of in place of one that we had heard of, called Prince Beach (I think). Where we stopped was very nearby, so the group was satisfied that we had seen the same shoreline. Right near the town itself, he told us how the land juts out and Carlisle Beach would still be calm enough to enjoy. So that was going to be the one beach we hung out at after driving all around; that instead of Prince Beach.
Bathsheba Beach - Now on the other side of the island, I had read that Bathsheba Beach was a beautiful one to see. So we went there. He told us ahead of time that this was more for surfers, but it's still something I wanted to see. So we went there... took some pictures and all. It was really nice. On the way there, he took us up on top of some hill. It was a gorgeous view from up there.
Carlisle Beach - This was a really fun beach experience. Actually, mixed in the sense that the one nice beach-front seating area was full and the guy kind of rudely told us to go next door. The place next door was kind of dingy... but anyway, just had to sit somewhere anyway. Later on the guy who was rude was apologizing a couple of times. We forgive him. :-) So while we were sitting there, these 3 young proprietors got the idea that we were up for some water sports. So these two jet ski dudes and one snorkeling dude got after us. They literally wouldn't let us sit down and relax. It was funny...kind of and annoying at the same time. You sort of get used to the desperation of the people there. Tourism $'s is all they have. We tried our best to shoo them off... and come back later. So we decided to do the snorkeling thing. That was really awesome. None of us had snorkeled before, so we were a bit nervous, but it turned out to be pretty easy. We had life jackets on and all you really do is put your face in to the water. We swam over a shipwreck that had tons of fish. The boat guy gave me a big wad of bread to attract the fish; it's amazing how close they'd get. And if you turn around, they're like right there up beside you. No matter how much I tried, I couldn't grab any, though. They're fast! It's amazing that some fish are literally right ont he surface of the water, but you can't see them until you put your face in. And the the best part was a second area where we swam with these huge turtles. It was awesome. Thrilling! I mean, they would swim like right at you and then just like go under you at the last minute. You could touch their shells and all. It was a lot of fun. It's so weird... seeing a huge turtles expression as he's swimming right at your face! :-) The sand on this beach was amazing. Probably the whitest sand and the definitely the softest. It was like walking on silk instead of sand. It was awesome. Even that Turtle Bay sand was very soft. If only the water wasn't so wild that day, I best Prince Beach would've been amazing.
No, it's not the Dominican Republic, it's Dominica, pronounced like Domineeka. This was the second island where I had pre-arranged a tour. Fortunately, it was night and day difference from St Kitts, though. Actually Dominica is very different from the other islands. It's a volcanic island and the sand on the beaches is black. I had read that the beaches aren't great, but there are plenty of other things to see in and around the rain forest. So the guy I found was called Beno. There's also a site for Beno Tours. Basically it's this one proprietor. He seemed like a really nice guy as soon as we met him. I talked to another friend and they mentioned the same destinations plus one called Champagne Bay. I told Beno about it and he said he would take us there. Beno never said no to us for whatever we talked to him about and he didn't ask for additional money for the additional places. Another cool feature of his tour is he stocked the van with a cooler full of bottled water and the local beer called Kubuli. That was a great added touch to the tour. I would highly recommend him for a Dominica tour. There are also other great tours on this island as well; others where the guides were even more helpful, so I get the feeling that this is a VERY friendly island. Again, stark comparison to our experience at St. Kitts. I feel like if this place had good beaches, it would be the best destination for sure. I think a combination of St Maarten and Dominica is the perfect vacation.
Titou Gorge - This was a cool stop. Basically, it's a waterfall inside this cave-like area. There's a huge gorge where a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean 2 was also shot. There's a scene where they're running away from someone/something and they jump in to this gorge. I'm going to have to rent that movie to remember the scene myself. But anyway it was a short little hike up to the gorge and then I actually swam in to it. It was kind of a scary swim. There are parts where the water is very shallow... then it goes really deep and then it's shallow again. When you put your foot down and there's nothing down there... and you kind of go in to the water a bit; that's when I kind of freaked out a little bit. I should've taken a life vest, but I didn't. Well, anyway I swam all the way in and up to this little cove area where the waterfall actually was. It was an exhausting swim, because you're going up-current from that fall. I couldn't make it in to the cove... the current was just too strong and I was pooped. The rest of my group just stayed by the outside and waited for me. It was fun... felt like I was very adventurous doing it.
Screw Sulfur Spa - We paid and entered a sulfur spa for a while. It was really cool, because they had built these man-made pools of sulfur springs. The idea is that the sulfur water is very good for your skin. Each subsequent pool was cooler; in all they have 5 pools of differing temperatures. We worked our way up to the hottest one. It was a really relaxing stop.
Trafalgar Falls - Beautiful falls in the middle of the rain forest. After a small hike up to the platform you get a view of two separate falls. Interestingly, one of them is very hot water and the other one is cold water. It's so amazing that is... After the platform the going got a lot tougher... you have to scale up and down all sorts of slippery boulders and rocks, etc. It was definitely an adventure, but we went and got in to both falls. Some great shots in the cascading pools under those falls. Really fun.
Mountain View - It was a gorgeous view from up there. We saw the entire town and port and cricket stadium and all. Breathtaking.
Champagne Bay - After the falls, we went to Champagne Bay. Along the way, other tours waved to Beno and told him that snorkeling was not advised today due to the rough waters. Too cloudy and too strong of a current. Well, since we had heard about it we asked him to take us there anyways. So we went there and walked around and took a look. There were a few people out there snorkeling. We thought about it, but decided to skip. Other friends of ours said they did that as their first stop and the person they were with helped take them in despite the rough waters. There had been some scary parts for them as well. I think with a few of us that were non-swimmers being there, I'm glad we stayed out of it. Plus we had run out of time after doing 3 somewhat time-consuming activities beforehand. So we went back to the pier and it was time to leave Dominica.
St Kitts was by far the least impressive of the trip. Left a bad taste in my mouth after a number of issues added up. Ironically, this is the first port where I had pre-arranged an island tour through Liz Periera tours. She has amazing reviews up the wazoo if you read through trip advisor and/or cruise critic. I was highly disappointed. First of all, she is nothing more than a glorified contractor. She runs her fancy web-site and that's about it. The tours themselves are contracted out to locals. Our was a British lady named Rose. Her husband and her run a tour company/taxi called Jim and Rose. She was a nice enough lady, I guess; but as soon as Liz started talking I could smell fish. She started out being 15-20 minutes late to our meeting point. Rose was there on time, but we had to wait for Liz on the pier. Then she tells me that the highlight to the panoramic tour + beach stop was not going to be possible. Meaning, the best beach on the island, South Friars Beach is off the table because the road to that beach is dangerous; boulders falling on the street. Now, that may and actually was true; boulders had fallen on the street at some point in the past. I heard from others that it happened a few weeks ago. Her own words were that it happened a week ago, but that the road was still dangerous. Funny how she forgot to mention that detail when we were discussing the tour details and pricing over email. They promised to take us to another beach which was also going to be great. The other big difference was they made us pre-pay. The only time we did that on the trip. Nor did I ask and nor did she offer to reduce the price we agreed upon. If you can't deliver the goods... then you shouldn't be in the service business. In retrospect, we should have ditched these clowns as soon as they started backing off their commitments. Anyway... hindsight... right? Well, the silver lining in being on a cruise is that if you don't like a particular island, it's not a huge deal because you will be back on the ship in no-time.
Panoramic Tour - The tour was fine... Rose drove us around and showed us churches and government buildings. She was knowledgeable and told us all about various trees, plants, etc. She took us to all the other points of interest that they were supposed to. The Batik art demo was nice. I asked her later in the day if the road had cleared up to South Friars, but she quite adamantly said she isn't going to risk her life to take us there. I found out later from other friends that they had all gone to that side of the island just fine. Also, she took us to this small shop on a hill where the shop owner lady was to say the least... a b#$%. We were negotiating for coffee mugs and she was being difficult. No problem... so eventually we said we wanted the mugs and we asked her to wrap them in something. She did that... and as she was finishing that up we handed over the money. She put in her drawer at which point we changed our mind. We had not even picked the mugs off her table. She said, the money is in my drawer and I don't do refunds. Refund? We were pissed. I should have unwrapped and left those coffee mugs for her right there. What made this whole thing worse was this woman Rose making some comments in support of the shop lady while we were there. Ridiculous... The view from that hill was amazing, though.
Frigate Bay - So this is that "other beach". We were not impressed by this beach, AT ALL. First the guy we talked to for seats was very rude. We sat at on beach chairs in front of a place called Cathy's. The beach itself was just OK. Developed with many bars/restaurants, but not as nice as Orient Beach from the day before. Secondly, all of the restaurants were fly infested. It was GROSS. We walked a bit away and ate at a place... they had ceiling fans up to prevent the flies from coming around. We had this veggie roti which sounded interesting, but was kind of a letdown. We hung out for a bit and then left. Frankly, I think they did this whole thing for the kick-back from Cathy's. Cathy told us at one point that she knew exactly who brought us there and who told us to sit at her beach front seats. I don't know the reason... but I will definitely be speaking out against Liz and her tours wherever I can. Friends I was with had trouble in terms of rudeness at Cathy's when ordering some food. I have to say, I doubt the all of the rudeness we experienced was a coincidence. I think sometimes the culture of an island is just unpleasant. I wouldn't recommend St. Kitts to anyone.
I think St Maarten was the complete package. They have beautiful beaches and an interesting town and all. There's a lot to do. It was quite a bit more developed than Tortola. You notice that as soon as you disembark; the port is very nice and developed. Again, we didn't have anything planned out ahead of time. There wasn't as much of an opportunity to arrange day trips here. The taxi drivers were like unionized... they took single fares and prices were fixed, etc. On my list I had Orient Beach, Little Bay Beach, Dawn Beach, and shopping on Front Street.
Orient Beach - Beautiful beach. Very commercial, but it was beautiful. We hung out on the clothed side and it was just fun. We sat in front of a bar called Aloha. It was something like $7 per chair and free umbrella. Once you pay you get a complementary welcome drink and access to bathrooms, their changing room, etc. The beach is ultra-commercial; in the sense that without that access you can't even use any of the bathroom facilities. There were a lot of vendors that kept stopping by. Everyone wants to give you a aloe vera massage. I kept on thinking they were saying all over massage, until I saw the aloe stems in their hands. :-) They also sell you bracelets, bags, towels that become bags, and so much more. It was kind of annoying, but it was fine. Took a walk down the whole beach, but didn't feel like swimming too much this time. It was fun. We ate lunch at a French owned place. They had pizza. Great service. We actually found all the people around here to be great. Very friendly and pleasant.
Maho Beach - This beach wasn't on my list, but someone at the visitor center mentioned it, and so we decided to check this out. It turned out that Dawn beach was specific to either snorkeling or surfing or whatever, so it didn't make sense for us to go there. Anyway, Maho beach turned out to be a very different and unexpected experience. Basically, the beach is adjacent to an airport runway. So when planes arrive, they approach the beach from out at sea and it looks like they're coming right at you. Thrilling experience. Also, they take off from the same runway, and when their jets fire up, the jet stream literally blows you back!! It's probably very dangerous, but that didn't prevent the masses from doing it repeatedly. It was fun. These one group of guys got blown back probably 50 feet and in to the water. Craziness!!
Front Street - If you want to buy a camera, laptop, or even jewelry, I would say go to St. Maarten prepared. If you know exactly what you want, you can probably get a really great deal. They say it's cheap because they don't pay import duties, there's no sales tax, etc. Plus take cash and you can negotiate even better deals. I think there actually are some taxes, but they try to hide that from tourists. Anyway, we didn't see the latest models and so forth, but they pricing seemed good. I'd have to be much more prepared to actually buy something. Know your products, know the prices, you must go in to every negotiation prepared or expect to be fleeced. That's the island peoples' livelihood; they prey on unsuspecting tourists. They're not bad people, but that's just how they make money.
Tortola was our first stop and we purposely didn't have any tours or excursions pre-planned. From my research, I had a list of highlighted destinations, though. With that I negotiated with a taxi driver to take us around. We finally agreed on $22 per person and he spent pretty much the whole day with us. That wasn't bad for 4 of us. We want to hit the two beaches I had read about and we did that plus a bit more. The taxi driver and everyone we worked with was very nice.
Smuggler's Cove - This was a beautiful little beach. A great start to our trip. It was kind of far from the port and a very small quaint beach. Not commercial at all. I think there were probably 5 other tourists there on the beach. It was beautiful. There was a small bar on one side where this really nice lady made us some fresh tropical cocktails. Her Pina Colada was made with fresh pineapple. Everything was fresh and delicious. We hung out at this beach for a couple of hours. We LOVED this place.
Cane Garden Bay - This was a more commercial beach. Overall very good. We enjoyed the water and everything. I would recommend this one as well. Another beautiful beach. We spent a lot of time in the water at this beach; probably more than any other on the trip. Probably because it was one of the first and we were the most motivated to do so at this point. :-) There were restaurants right on the beach and we had a little lunch. The service was a little slow. Mostly just chilled there.
Callwood Distillery - This was a fun little stop along our way. This is supposed to be one of the original rum distilleries in Tortola, supposedly 400 years old. For $1, you get to taste the entire portfolio of rums; from the basic to the 10-year aged. They also had some specials for the ladies (you'll have to go there to see what I mean). I ended up buying a small bottle of the 10-year at this place and "smuggled" it on to the ship in my pocket. :-) I know... it's bad. I didn't really matter, basically you can purchase local alcohols and check them in when you board. You get them back on the last night. But anyway, I got mine in. Along the way, the taxi driver would stop at a few spots for us to take more pictures. For example from the top of a hill, we saw Brewer's Bay which is good for snorkeling.