Last week, we completed a six-night cruise aboard Carnival Splendor to witness firsthand the effects of recent hurricanes on ports of call and to talk with passengers about their post-storm expectations and impressions.
Our itinerary included stops in the Bahamas' Nassau and Half Moon Cay, and the Dominican Republic's Amber Cove. Overall, we found the cruise's homeport in Fort Lauderdale and the three ports so unscathed by September's major hurricanes that you couldn't even tell they'd hit the vicinity. Of the original ports on the itinerary, only Grand Turk in the Turks & Caicos was still closed and replaced with a day at sea, but expected to re-open in just a few weeks.
- See what Carnival execs and staff members had to say about the Caribbean's recovery, so far.
Reactions were mixed about the change in scheduling and the impact of three hurricanes prior to departure. In general, the hurricanes had caused cruisers worry about cancellations and safety. Many, such as honeymooners Brandy and Brandon Clayton from Houston, Pennsylvania, had booked more than six months ago. "Our travel agent told us they would go to other islands if there was a problem," said Brandon, which set their minds at ease.
The mood upon departure, with a ship boasting about 98 percent occupancy, was one of elation, as you'd expect at the onset of any cruise to sea, sun and sand. Perhaps a little more so as everyone breathed a sigh of relief that the threat of hurricanes had finally dissipated and most of the cruise's ports of call were left intact.
The omission of Grand Turk was more upsetting to some than to others. Nashville honeymooners Kiana and Andrew Brogdon deeply regretted the change in this, their first cruise. Andrew's grandmother, a Carnival regular about to embark on her 15th cruise, had recommended Splendorspecifically because Grand Turk was her favorite cruise port. Their visit to Nassau was a disappointment because they did not book a shore excursion, but they were excited about a "waterfalls and canyoning adventure" awaiting them in Amber Cove.
Miranda Eaddy from Connecticut looked at the bright side of the situation. She was one of a group of 600-plus wearing green "Paradise Island Cruise VIII" T-shirts on departure day. Along with 13 other family members, Eaddy had joined the eighth annual sail organized by a travel agency in Yonkers, New York. Last year's sailing happened in the midst of Hurricane Matthew, which also changed her itinerary, she was experienced with hurricane cruise disruption.
"Another day at sea!" she said of the itinerary change. "I was going to do an ATV adventure, that's the only bad part. But it saves us those port fees and we have the drink package, so we're good."
Tisha Wallace of Ashboro, North Carolina was pleased that Grand Turk came off the agenda. She has twice visited the port and -- although she loved the beach -- was not especially taken by the destination.
Veteran Carnival cruisers John and Debra Richardson from Long Beach Island, New Jersey were disappointed. They had enjoyed previous visits to Grand Turk, and said they preferred a true island destination to the "homemade" ports that cruise lines create, such as Half Moon Cay and Amber Cove. But, overall, they were pleased with the conditions they found in the ports they were returning to. "They cleaned it up real well," said John.
We too were impressed with clean-up efforts, especially in Amber Cove, our final destination, where we heard they had experienced some flooding. Sales clerks greeted cruisers as they disembarked, and told us they never lost power or suffered much damage, but had to close for a couple of weeks until ships began to return.
We had heard much the same story in Nassau, our first port of call. Maria was the biggest scare for locals, said Jason Burrows, a musician and restaurateur at Arawak Cay, a truly Bahamian dining tradition of restaurants and food stands commonly known as Fish Fry. "I don't usually get scared by storms, but that one had me scared," he said. "We got lucky. It missed us."
Familiar with Nassau, we opted to explore the downtown area on our own. The walk from the docks, past Junkanoo Beach to Arawak Cay, showed no discernible damage. The beach was the hot spot for cruise ships that day -- three of which were docked in the harbor. Besides Splendor, Disney Magic and Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas visited, making downtown a bustle of activity that residents embraced.
All shore excursions were operating, but many passengers found their own small tours once they arrived. Kevin and Carol Marner of St. Louis, first-timers to Nassau, asked their tour guide if the boarded-up buildings were a result of the recent hurricanes. She told them some of it was a result of last year's Hurricane Matthew, but most of it is due to the normal, continuous renovation the colonial town undergoes these days.
The waters around Nassau and Half Moon Cay were as inviting as ever -- clear as an aquarium and tinted 50 shades of blue from white sand, grass and coral reef bottom.
Feedback as the cruise drew to an end leaned mostly positive. Any negative reactions, other than disappointment about Grand Turk, had nothing to do with how hurricanes affected the cruise, which sailed under mostly sunny skies that week.
The Brogdons raved about their waterfalls adventure out of Amber Cove, which clearly offset previous disappointments. Passengers who did sightseeing excursions to Puerto Plata -- including ourselves -- enjoyed our taste of culture. And rum. Beachgoers and day trippers aboard a snorkeling catamaran also returned to the ship pleased with their day.
By dinner on our last night at sea, the word "hurricane" never once blew into conversations. Irma and Maria were uninvited guests and became a distant memory for cruisers pre-empted by bouts of partying and relaxation at sea; a celebration of Caribbean resilience and enduring beauty.
--By Chelle Koster Walton, Cruise Critic contributor