Port and Shore Excursions
As I'm sure you've read before, the first impression of Barbados is underwhelming. The ship dock is very industrial, and you have a wonderful view of crates, cranes, warehouses and sugar cane loaders. Compared to all of the other beautiful ports, you would think that Barbados would invest in fixing this eyesore.
I really didn't have a firm plan for this day, and was hoping to find a decent deal on an island tour with a stop at Harrison's Cave. If all else failed, we'd shop in Bridgetown and go to nearby Rockley Beach. When we emerged from the cruise terminal, the security guard asked us where we were going, and I said Harrison's Cave. He routed me over to a driver, who gave me a rate of $250 US to be our private driver for the day. While I thought this was a bit expensive, I rationalized that this was $50pp, which would still be a much bigger value than a Carnival excursion...and was it ever.
Our driver was an older gentleman that spoke excellent English, and he immediately "hit it off" with my family. The cave is at the center of the island, so we received a full download of information about the island, the people, schools, government, economy, etc. on the way there.
We arrived at the cave at 10:30, but the tour sizes are limited and the earliest opening was noon. We took the appointment, but instead of waiting there, our driver took us to the highest point in Barbados and the oldest church in Barbados in that 90 minutes span! Both were very nice stops.
The cave tour took about an hour and a half itself. It was nice, but my wife has been to Carlsbad Caverns and found the cave rather small by those standards. The rest of the family found it interesting, though, and enjoyed getting out of the sun for awhile.
We were starving after the cave tour, and my wife wanted to shop a little, so the driver took us back to Bridgetown and pointed us to quaint cafe on the marina near downtown. The food was good, and there were local shops and sites nearby to checkout.
We met back up with our driver at 3:30, but we weren't done yet! He took us over to the Mount Gay rum distillery. We didn't have time for a full tour, but we had plenty of time to sample some rum drinks in their cool bar area and buy some souvenirs. All in all, a very enjoyable day; jam packed day of sightseeing.
My only reason for not rating San Juan a 5 is that we didn't spend enough time here! If we had known Old San Juan would be so unique, interesting and fun, we would have flown in a day early.
After transferring from the airport to the cruise ship terminal, we went through check-in and then left the terminal to eat and visit. In hindsight, it would have been better to tour San Juan first and then check-in later when there was NO line.
After eating a quick lunch, we walked to Fort San Cristobal and checked out the awesome views for an hour. We then made the long walk over to the El Morro fort, but we were not alone as there were tons of people flying kites and enjoying an art festival that was going on there.
On our walk back from El Morro to the cruise ship terminal, we passed through the Old Gate, and then up through the local vendor stalls on Paseo de La Princesa. There were many local eateries and cafes to check out as well, but the atmosphere felt like one giant party.
Similar to St. Thomas, this was another beach day. A Cruise Critic port review had recommended Cockleshell Beach so that is where we headed. The rate was $7/per person, so transportation for my family was $20 cheaper than St. Thomas. The views en route to Cockleshell were every bit as awesome as St. Thomas, and maybe even a bit better. The viewpoint where you can see the Atlantic Ocean on one side of the peninsula, and the Caribbean on the other was great.
Once we arrived at the beach, we rented chairs, umbrellas and snorkeling equipment. The fees were basically the same as Coki Beach in St. Thomas. The beach was beautiful, but seemed unnaturally hemmed in by a dock and a boat sitting in the swimming area. The reason for this became apparent later when a Catamaran tour came in on the other side of the dock for their patron's "private beach" swimming.
The snorkeling was great here, and I found several live Conch shells, starfish and sea urchins. The fish weren't as big as Coki, but the other shells were much better.
Of course, the other attraction at Cockleshell is the giant hog that lives there. He was in the surf when we arrived, but I was actually glad that he decided to go lay in the sand shortly thereafter.
This was the only day that we had a pre-booked zipline tour. I booked a Triple Adventure directly with Treetop Canopy Adventures, which was a 5 1/2 hour tour including an open-air "jeep-style" ride to the facility about 40 minutes each way, 12 ziplines, and a hike and swim at a local waterfall.
The open air jeep ride was long, and somewhat scary if you watched the driving. I was reminded of taxi rides that I've taken in Germany and China where I simply had to stop watching the driving to keep my blood pressure in check. The driver was a pro driving fast on the narrow, winding mountain roads with washouts, walkers and other hazards. The views of the lush, natural terrain, coconut, banana, mango, avocado, etc. trees were awesome.
Once we got to the facility, we were fitted for the ziplining gear, and zipped on the 12 lines. They generally crossed over the same gorge at different heights and angles, but it was awesome. After the ziplining was over, we had lunch at the facility, and then headed over to the waterfall.
The waterfall was nice, but the water level was low, and the water quality was not what you are used to in the Caribbean. We played in the water nonetheless, and then sampled raw coconut, cocoa, oranges and sugar cane. The sugar cane was excellent.
The only downside of the day was when the tour guide dropped us off in Castries instead of the cruise ship terminal. The couple we were with wanted to eat, and we wanted some ice cream. To make a long story short, we were dropped off at a bazaar shopping area, and there was no ice cream. On our "10-minute" walk back to the cruise terminal, we were courted by countless prospective taxi drivers and a homeless beggar. A good experience for my children, but I couldn't convince them of that.
After dropping my kids off at the ship, my wife and I went back out to the cruise ship shopping area and bought some souvenirs and drinks. The local Piton beer was the deal of the week - 2 for $3. We also bought some Del Sol T-shirts that change colors in the sun, but they were pricey at $25 each.
Last but not least was St. Maarten / Sint Martin. We had planned to take a day sail here, but the family was a bit tuckered out so we settled on a shopping and sight seeing.
Coming out of the cruise terminal, we caught a taxi to Marigot for $7 pp. This was actually a discount from the government set max rate of $8 pp because we shared a cab with another couple. Once we arrived at Marigot, we went to the Marina area and found a cool bazaar of local vendors on the water. The deals were much better here than anywhere else in Marigot, as the vendors bartered and came down on price quite a bit. We bought more souvenirs here than anywhere else.
I thought about taking the ferry to Anguilla from here, but time didn't allow it, and the family energy level was too low. So after shopping in Marigot, we went back to Phillipsburg for some final shopping. Ironically, we ate lunch at McDonald's, which was an amazing deal at $30 for the whole family! We took the water taxi from Phillipsburg back to the cruise ship terminal for another $4 pp and called it a day.
With a family of 5, the extra money commanded by the ship excursions is cost prohibitive, and we did not have anything pre-booked. That said, some friends of ours frequent St. Thomas regularly, and they recommended either going to Coki Beach, Sapphire Beach or a cruise to St. John's. We opted for a day at the beach at Coki, and were not disappointed.
After getting off the ship in Havensight, we spent some time shopping before reaching the taxi area. The taxi dispatcher gave me a rate of $9 per person one-way to go to Coki in an open air bus with several other cruisers paying the same rate. The drive took about 30 minutes, but gave a feeling of the local economy and had several beautiful views.
Once we reached Coki Beach, an attendant was waiting for us, and took to the equipment rental station, and got us set up on the beach with our umbrella and chairs. The snorkel equipment, 3 chairs and an umbrella came to $55. The attendant also became our drink and food server for the day.
The best part of Coki Beach is the great snorkeling to the right side of the beach toward Coral World. They will also sell you Milkbone dog biscuits for $1 each to feed the fish. They come right up to you and start nibbling on the biscuit - quite cool. I didn't see any sharks or turtles, but my daughter saw a barracuda!
On the trip back, the driver stopped on Rte 40 at an overlook of the ship sitting in Long Bay. I didn't take the tram up to Paradise Point, but I don't think that view could have been better than this one!