Caribbean islands via Celebrity Constellation March 2012
After our December cruise through the Panama Canal down to Chile, on Celebrity Infinity, we embarked on another Celebrity cruise on the Constellation, a twin sister of Infinity. The layout was the same and we found the same level of excellent service and cuisine that we had on Infinity. The Caribbean was not high on our cruise plans, but it was easy to manage, since we live 416 miles from Ft. Lauderdale and did not have to fly for this cruise.
We enjoyed our trip to each of the eight islands on the itinerary:
Aruba, Curacao, Grenada, Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua, St. Maarten and St. Thomas
They were all different and we did have our favorites. I liked Curacao, St. Lucia and Grenada the most, with Barbados close to the pack. Curacao seemed wealthier and had a more European atmosphere. St. Lucia topped the list of natural beauty, with Grenada a close second. Both St. Lucia and Grenada had the most authentic Caribbean feel. Both were more mountainous and greener. Barbados was the most British and clearly had a consistency about it being an independent state for many years with a clear national identity. St. Maarten/Martin and St. Thomas seemed to be more a playground for wealthy tourists, and while beautiful were just a bit touristy. Aruba was nice to visit, but it was not authentic and a bit touristy as well.
Before I go into the details of our visits to the island, I want to evaluate the Constellation. This was our fourth ocean/sea cruise and second by Celebrity. Our first two cruises were with NCL out of Europe, while both Celebrity cruises originated out of Ft. Lauderdale. The makeup of the passengers can influence the cruise and we found both NCL cruises out of the Med had a significant number of Europeans, while neither of the Celebrity cruises had a large number of non-British Europeans. There were probably more Canadians on our Constellation than Americans. We dined with them all and enjoyed their company. We did find the median age of this cruise to be the highest of all our cruises. There were very few children and many wheelchairs and scooters, though not enough to make us feel like we were in a floating nursing home. We had no problems on the excursions, since most of the people; even 70 year olds were pretty spry about getting around. At least one person was evacuated from the ship, on our way from St. Thomas to Ft. Lauderdale.
The dining was another winner. We found the food on Constellation to be quite good, as we had on Infinity. We ate nearly all our meals at the main dining room (MDR), which was consistently excellent in service and food quality. I did ask the waiter for another main course when what I ordered turned out very different from what I expected. He took care of me as they did in the MDR every night. We did one night at the specialty restaurant Tuscan Grille (Italian), which was super (for $30 pp). The buffet was not always packed, but usually. We did room service on a few days when we had early excursions. Celebrity offers eggs, bacon and plain omelets for room service, unlike NCL. The buffet is a bit of a zoo at times, since Celebrity has the salad bar integrated into other food lines, making it frustrating at times. It should be noted that Celebrity is known for its food and it does seem to draw more than its share of food loving people (and it shows). The buffet has a designated Eggs Benedict station, which converts to a pizza station after breakfast. The MDR food is superior to NCL's, and generally the buffets are about the same. The NCL specialty restaurants are excellent and they do offer more variety (Italian, French, Steak, Chinese, Japanese and Mexican) than Celebrity. Celebrity's crepe restaurant, Bistro on Five is quite good (we did lunch there our first day on the ship).
The Constellation's entertainment was generally excellent, as was Infinity, while we thought the NCL Gem and Jade had slightly better entertainment, the difference was not significant. The Constellation had Perry Grant for one show as well as part of another, and he was great. The Constellation's dancers and singers were quite good. They put on a show similar to the one on Infinity ("Discover The World") as well as "Land of Make Believe," which were excellent. Rondell Sheridan was a good comic and kept us laughing at ourselves (we joked about cruising). Jack Walker was excellent with his singing, especially with the show tunes and opera. Diane Cousins, a Welsh comic was funny when you could understand her. Don Bryan was an excellent ventriloquist and good comic.
We took Celebrity excursions on each island and most were pretty good. I will go over the excursions when I go over the individual islands. Prior to the cruise, I purchased a Fodor's Caribbean 2012, which was somewhat helpful in reading ahead about each island, except that the guide was more structured for someone going to an island for a several day stay.
Our excursions were generally selected for us to see the most on each island, particularly historical and cultural sites. We live on an island in Georgia and have a beach nearby and had little interest in going to the beach, however the beaches we saw were beautiful with crystal clear water. For those interested in snorkeling or scuba, this cruise would be a great choice, after hearing other passengers that did snorkeling or scuba.
Our route to our first island, Aruba took us past the northern coast of Cuba. We could see mountains in the distance for quite a while, until we finally passed between Haiti and Cuba. Aruba and Curacao were our stops after our two days at sea. We took advantage of the fitness center on those sea days in order to fight the battle of the flab. It was not as crowded as on Infinity. Both islands were once Dutch colonies, but now have been granted autonomy and virtual independence, while still under the Dutch Crown.
Aruba is the A of the ABC islands just off the coast of Venezuela. They are Dutch, largely because the Spanish thought them of little value when discovered. The island is rather arid and semi-desert, so largely unsuitable for agriculture. Aruba seems to thrive on tourism and the island has several luxury hotels. The people, as in Curacao are friendly, as we found on every island we visited. The ethnicity of the people is a mix of European, Amerindians and African. There is more of an Indian influence here since the Spanish did not take over the islands and ship the Indians to work as slaves. Therefore the African influence is less dominant in the culture than the six islands that we visited on the Eastern side of the Caribbean.
We took an excursion that was described:
Aruba's Sights, History and Culture - ARA6 - Oranjestad, Aruba
Experience Aruba at its finest on these unique sights, history and culture tour. Drive through charming Oranjestad and observe the Dutch colonial architecture with its antique buildings and houses merging with the modern architecture. Walk through Aruba's past at the Archeological and History Museum and visit the most complete art collection of the island. Aruba's greatest asset is their welcoming people who are always ready to share their island and its unique culture and history.
The tour was not expensive and we saw quite a lot of the island, including the beautiful North shore where we saw the Alta Vista Chapel. The arid terrain has its own beauty, not unlike Arizona without the Saguaro. We saw the famous California lighthouse (not inside, it was closed) and saw many hotels and casinos. My sense is that Aruba is a great place for beautiful beach vacations with casinos and plenty of restaurants, but there is not much history to see on the island.
Curacao's Willemstad was filled with attractive Dutch and Caribbean architecture. There was more to see there, than Aruba. Curacao was much more developed and had a distinctive European flair, while still Caribbean. The Constellation was docked in Willemstad across the port from the main part of the city, and a movable pontoon bridge was moved a few times to let ships in or out of the port. This island seemed to have some wealth and it showed.
We did our favorite excursion here, the Dolphin Encounter, which Celebrity described:
Dolphin Encounter - CU66 - Willemstad, Curacao
Touch, hug and kiss a dolphin while learning all about them. You will stand in waist deep water as the dolphin allows you to gently pet him or her.
Our swim with the dolphins was the number one highlight of the cruise. We found Romeo the dolphin very friendly and receptive to our affections. A dolphin show was included and while the price was not cheap, it was worth the cost.
We had another sea day on our way to the Eastern islands, which the first was Grenada. Grenada was a former British colony that became independent in 1974. This was the first of six islands where road traffic drives on the left. English is the official language on most of these islands and on the others widely spoken. Some of the natives speak a creole language that is a mix of Spanish, French and Portuguese. Grenada was not as wealthy as Curacao, but it was beautiful and more mountainous. The roads were not always the greatest, but we enjoyed seeing the parts of the island that we visited. Grenada was more authentically Caribbean, as we found St. Lucia. The lush green landscapes provide for the people. Spices are a major industry there and our excursion visited an Estate as well as a spice cooperative where spices are collected, sorted and dried. The Celebrity excursion was described:
Spice and Waterfalls - GD43 - St. George's, Grenada
Grenada's west coast hosts a number of features specific to the island: spices, cocoa, nutmeg and waterfalls. Go North along the Caribbean Sea to Gouyave, a small town that has a surprising feature: the nutmeg cooperative plant. Travel about one century back in time. There are no conveyor belts and machines. The processing of this spice starts and ends in ladies' hands and fingers. Next stop is Dougaldston Estate. Founded in 1700, this cocoa plantation displays spices and aromas of the island.
The spice plant and plantation were interesting. We were allowed to sniff them all. After a while, I wondered if we would have to go into rehab. The Concord falls was beautiful, even though the more massive falls were upstream and would have required an hour long hike with a guide. The tour allowed us to see several villages and much lush terrain. There were several "sleeping policemen" on the roads also known as speed bumps. We were shown where the Marines landed during the intervention of the 80s. A regime supported by Cuba had taken over government and assassinated the PM Maurice Bishop and several others including children. After the excursion, we walked up the hill to the castle overlooking the city (I think that is where Clint Eastwood and the Marines were) and the guide showed us the bullet holes in the flagpole and wall where the people were lined up and shot.
Our guide showed us some very nice homes on the side of the hills from time to time (we saw many) and explained that these homes were built by people that had left Grenada, made their fortunes in the UK, Canada or the USA and then come back to live in their homeland. We found the people very friendly and helpful. DW was looking for a cookbook for the local cuisine and the first bookstore only had Betty Crocker, but one of the attendants walked with us to another bookstore about three blocks away (not to find what DW wanted), then another four blocks to another bookstore, where DW found the books she wanted. I can't wait for the Caribbean cooking.
Barbados was the most established and British of the islands. It has been independent since 1966 (with local autonomy for 300 years) and could be the largest nation that we visited. I think the population is a bit less than 300,000 people while most of the other islands have less than 100,000. Barbados had a thriving molasses industry from cane (not called sugar cane as we were told). It still has a lot of cane fields, but seems to have more today. Tourism is thriving, since the people are highly educated and there is little crime. We did see modest dwellings on the island, but the island seemed relatively prosperous. We understand that the unemployment rate there is about 10%, while some of the other Caribbean islands have 20% unemployment. Barbados had pretty good roads, especially in Bridgetown. Our excursion took us to the Eastern side of the island to see a church and stop at Orchid World on the way back. The excursion was described:
Best of Barbados - BB07 - Bridgetown, Barbados
Travel through the center of the island to Orchid World, home to an array of orchids and other fauna. Drive through Barbadian countryside to famous St.John's Church. Look for the tomb of Ferdinando Paleologus, last descendant of the last Christian Emperor of Constantinople. Arriving at the Tyrol Cot, you will experience a superb example of a Barbadian Sugar Estate Great House. Over 300 yrs. old, this well maintained Plantation House is filled with antiques/memorabilia of a bygone era.
At Tyrol Cot, we learned about the first PM of Barbados, Errol Barrow, who owned the house. Barrow was the early distinguished leader of the country. The house was interesting as well as the "village" on site that was a collection of historical homes from slavery until today. Barbados is something of a key country in the Eastern Caribbean. The Concorde once flew there from Europe. I know that many Barbadians provided valuable labor for the building of the Panama Canal. It was interesting to see that the heir to the throne of the Byzantine Empire was buried at St. John's Church on the island. That is a connection with history.
The Orchid World proved to be another highlight to our cruise. We saw hundreds of astounding beautiful orchids. I strongly recommend a visit there by anyone porting in Barbados.
St. Lucia was the most beautiful of all the islands. It was mountainous and the twin peaked Pitons were awesome. We had a great excursion there that visited the volcano, where sulfurous vapors bubble up constantly. The island is just beautiful with many natural views. The Celebrity excursion is described:
La Soufriere Volcano - SLC6 - Castries, St. Lucia
Your scenic drive will take you through Castries and up to Morne Fortune viewpoint to capture some lovely panoramic views. Afterwards, continue to Marigot Bay view point for photos of the secluded bay, before wending your way to the town of Soufriere. As you descend into Soufriere, marvel at the spectacular twin peaks of the Pitons. You will visit the world's only drive in volcano and then enjoy a leisurely guided walk through the Maranatha Garden or Prayer Park. You'll then head to the Beacon hilltop viewpoint and restaurant to enjoy a drink and splendid views of the Pitons and Soufriere Valley before returning to Castries harbor.
Beautiful plant life is apparent at every turn. St. Lucia is high on our list of islands. The tour was excellent, one of the best of our cruise.
Antigua was something of a mix, it had some interesting history, being Admiral Nelson's Dockyard. Apparently, Nelson was worried about the insects, so he lived on is ship.
Best of Antigua - AN01 - St. Johns, Antigua
The tour begins with a drive through the capital city of St. John's, and stops at Antigua's National Park, Nelson's Dockyard to see the Admiral's House, Sail Maker's Loft, Old Bakery and the Officer's Quarters before enjoying a beverage in an 18th-century inn. A short drive brings you to the Blockhouse Ruins before continuing to Shirley Heights to see the guardhouse, built in 1791, which sits upon a rugged cliff top offering the most spectacular view of Antigua.
Nelson's Dockyard was the high point on the tour, but we enjoyed the beautiful vistas from the top of Shirley Heights. The island is more arid than Grenada, Barbados and St. Lucia, but does some a mix of flat and somewhat mountainous terrain. It is worth a visit as the people are friendly there. The tour was good.
St. Maarten is the Dutch side of the island, where we docked. St. Martin is the French side. The island is a playground for celebrities with multi-million dollar homes. The infrastructure was good for this rather small island, but is less authentically Caribbean. Tourism is the island and while its attractive beaches and hotels are great, I don't think you get as much a taste of the Caribbean here. Our tour took us over both sides of the island, but the main highlight of the tour was shopping. There was little to see of historical interest. Again, the beaches we saw were beautiful and I am sure snorkeling was good there.
St. Maarten Island Tour - SM04 - Philipsburg, St. Maarten
- Overview: Travel in comfort on a guided tour through the beautiful countryside of this two-nation island. You'll have time to explore in both the French capital of Marigot and the Dutch capital of Philipsburg. A great way to get an overview of this unique island. - Highlights: Enjoy a narrated, scenic ride through both the Dutch and French sides of the island. Explore and shop in the French capital of Marigot (approx. 45 minutes) and the Dutch capital of Philipsburg (at the conclusion of the tour). - Notes: Most shops in Marigot will be closed on Sundays and holidays
Our tour was ok and not expensive, we did get to see the island, but more than half the time on the tour was devoted to shopping.
It was great to look out of our balcony and see old glory on the flagpole at the port. St. Thomas was the most American of the islands. Guess what, it is in the Virgin Islands and US territory. We purchased it from Denmark in 1917. St. Thomas is a beautiful island, with great vistas from its high points on the middle of the island. It is greener than Antigua and St. Maarten and the infrastructure is very good. For some reason, drivers use the left instead of the right side of the roads. St. Thomas seemed to have a lot for all. A ferry goes to St. John where the snorkeling and beaches are awesome by report. We enjoyed our sightseeing there and the excursion that we took, which was described:
Blackbeard's Castle 5 Star Island Tour - STH3 - Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas
-Overview: Enjoy a tour of St. Thomas that includes two premier island destinations - St. Peter Great House and Blackbeard's Castle. This tour uses headsets to ensure you hear all guide commentary and is great for the whole family. -Highlights: Take a narrated live headset walking tour. Visit St. Peter Great House and Blackbeard's Castle. Time for shopping in downtown Charlotte Amalie.
The visit to the St. Peter Great House at the top of the island included great vistas and a nice garden. Blackbeard's Castle was well worth the trip despite the commercialism involved in walking down from the castle to the city. The walk was a part of the tour and we enjoyed the walk, but it seemed we were constantly going through a shop for rum or jewelry or something to buy. Still, it was a good tour and I recommend it for others. Once you reach the bottom of the walk, at street level, you are 2.5 miles from the ship, which we didn't have a problem. Some people did not want to walk, but taxis were not expensive.
We enjoyed our trip to these islands, but getting home was great. We drove down from Georgia, so no flying was involved. However, as soon as we arrived home, our allergies hit us big time. I had to cut the grass, which probably didn't help.