Thursday, April 30, 2015

Trip Report - Caribbean Cruise - Overview of the Week March 8th to March 15, 2015

March 8th - Left San Juan. Traditional lifeboat drill. Thank goodness we don't have to wear lifejackets anymore! Got to explore the ship. Went to reserve a table for two in the dining room for dinner and found we were already scheduled to be seated with the doll-making group. A nice bunch of people, but since I have a problem with food* I much preferred to eat at the buffet.

March 9th. This was a sea day, which meant that we didn't land anywhere.  I met with my doll-making group, while Harry went to the Cruise Critic meet-up. After the meet-up Harry went on a tour of some of the Cruise Critics' cabins and suites. (I belong to the Cruise Critic Boards, and if there are enough CC members on a cruise, they will schedule a get-together. )

March 10th. First island - Bridgeport, Barbados. I had signed us up for a ship-sponsored tour of Harrison's Cave, which was very interesting. Most of the Caribbean islands are volcanic islands, but a large part of Barbados was created from layers of sediment, so that water dripping from the surface through limestone has created an extensive cave system. When you get to the entrance, there are educational exhibits and a good video, then you get to ride in a little trolley down a tunnel through the cave. There is some controversy about whether excavating to make a tourist attraction was a good thing or not, but before this was done the only way to get into the cave was by crawling on your hands and knees and wading through water. This is a 'young' cave, geologically speaking, so the stalactites and stalagmites are not developed like those say, in Carlsbad Caverns, but the formations are still very intriguing.

Inside Harrison's Cave. (I'm waiting for my husband to send me his better photos)
On the cruise ship we get some of the first shore information with "info" maps that show only the businesses that have paid to be advertised. There is a short blurb about the history of each island, though, but other than that, you're on your own.

March 11th. St. Lucia. I had signed us up for an all-day tour called "Island's Delights". If I were to go again I would choose only one of the many places we visited, but as it was we drove and drove and the roads were very windy. Among our stops was Sulphur Springs, which is advertised as a drive-in volcano.
You can't get too close, but you can sure smell the sulphur.
We went through some little fishing villages, where I am beginning to suspect that 'picturesque' is a synonym for 'poor as dirt.' At one point I saw a woman washing clothes in a stream and my first thought was to grab my camera, but my second thought was to be embarrassed.

We had lunch at a hillside restaurant.
View towards the Pitons.
The final stop was Diamond Botanical Gardens, which were truly lovely.

Loved this sign.

Diamond botanical gardens

March 12th, Antigua

In Antigua we had to take a small boat across the bay to get to town. I was tired of package tours, so we used my husband's cell phone map as a guide. At first we wandered through the 'locals' part of town, where we had a snack at a bakery undiscovered by tourists.

Then we walked back through the 'touristy' area, and then back to the ship.
The beach in St. John's

A colorful house

A local told us that this building was "old slaves quarters".

Beautiful graffiti - Rihanna?

That night we went to the Beatle Maniacs show on the ship, which was very good. It was sad, though, to realize that I was probably one of the few people in the audience who had heard the Beatles when they were new.

March 13th, St. Maarten. St. Maarten is occupied by two different countries. Sint Maarten, where we docked, was settled by the Dutch. Saint-Martin, on the other side, was settled by the French. We spent some time in Phillipsburg, then took a taxi over to Saint-Martin to see the French side.

March 14th, last stop, St. Croix. First settled by the Danish but now the US Virgin Islands, it seemed one of the more prosperous of the islands we visited.  My husband splurged and hired a driver and we had the 'three-hour tour'. 
Botanical gardens

Flower of the Cannonball tree in Botanical Gardens

Fruit of the Sausage Tree (not edible)

Things for sale
March 15th - back to San Juan. "Get off the ship" time. Part of me wanted to stay, and part of me was glad to be back on land.

We went back to the hotel we had been at before, left our bags, and then went back into San Juan.

(More later)

*If food is put in front of me, I tend to eat it. For that reason I don't do well in restaurants.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Trip Report - Eastern Caribbean - The Adventure of the Seas - Review of the Ship

"It was the best of cruises, it was the worst of cruises." would pretty well sum up my cruise experience.  The Royal Caribbean "Adventure of the Seas"offers tremendous value (Looking at "Vacations to Go" website just now, they have inside cabins for less than the cost of a hotel room, and that includes all meals, and entertainment). Once you are onboard, though, they seem to try to nickel-and-dime you to make up the difference. Somehow, that soured part of the experience for me.

The Good:

Embarkation was relatively smooth, although we missed the email from the travel agent that told us we should have boarded two hours later. We gave them our bags (except my carry-on) and went to have lunch in the Windjammer Cafe, a large buffet-style restaurant.

Food was good and plentiful. I should say right here that my husband and I are not gourmets, or even foodies. Our at-home diets tend to be almost vegetarian, with a lot of rice, beans, fresh fruit, vegetables, and yogurt. When we eat out we go to places that feature 'home' cooking. That is why I really enjoyed the meals in the Windjammer, the buffet-style dining area of the ship. I could walk around and survey everything available (most items were repeated around the semi-circle, but there were a few items that were only offered in one place) and then decide what I wanted to eat. There was no rush, and you could take time to eat in a leisurely fashion. I didn't like the dining room very much - the table we were assigned to didn't have a view, service was relatively slow, and sometimes the food seemed to have been sitting for a while before it was served. The only thing that the dining room had that was better than what was at the Windjammer was the choice of desserts, although the only time I ordered creme brulee it arrived at room temperature. I think Royal Caribbean has cut dining room staff to save money.
There was also a yogurt machine near the entrance to the Windjammer, and a 'Deli' in the Promenade area which almost always had fruit, sandwiches, and pastry.

The decorations were there when we came. The last passengers must have had a party.

The Cabin: Nice cabin with a lot of storage. Everything worked, and there were no off smells. Even though we were close to one of the elevators there seemed to be good sound-proofing. We had a balcony so that I could get fresh air - especially nice after the claustrophobic San Juan hotel we had stayed at before the cruise.

Entertainment: We especially enjoyed the "Beatle Mania" production one evening, but what I heard and saw of the rest was not so good.

Gym: The exercise area was huge and well-equipped.

Decor: Lots of nice artwork and decoration.

Swimming pools and deck chairs: Abundant. I can understand why people who live in cold climates would love this part of the cruise experience.
Some of the pools at night. Very pretty.

The Bad:

Extra charges for some things you wouldn't expect: Here are some of the things that cost extra:
-Specialty dining - that includes not only the high-end specialty restaurants, but "Johnny Rocket's" burger bar.
-Specialty coffee or ice cream on the Promenade.
-Any alcoholic beverage* (except for champagne during the Captain's party). You may bring aboard one bottle of wine per passenger, but if you want anything else the bar prices run from about $6 to $15 for your average mixed drink, plus an automatic gratuity to the bartender)
-Soft drinks, juice, or bottled water.
-Any shore excursion. You also paid for transportation to ports that are more than a walk away from the dock. Here your options are to arrange for a private guide before you go, or to take one of the ship-sponsored tours. There is little or no information onboard about any of the destinations except for perhaps a map showing you how to get to the shops that pay them to advertise.
-Laundry (there is no do-it-yourself laundry onboard)
-Internet - slow and expensive.
-Gratuities. (Here they add $12 per passenger, per day, automatically to your bill and then they give you "tip' envelopes to hand out additional gratuities) The crew depends on the gratuities, so I don't begrudge them, but I hope that the crew members get their fair share.
-In-room movies (if you don't want to watch the one or two movies that they show over and over…)
-Smoking areas are in the same airspace as other public areas.

The Annoying:

The onboard 'shopping' program. Three companies, Onboard Media, Royal Media Partners, and the PPI group, work with different cruise lines to give 'shopping lectures' and provide port shopping information. They charge the land stores to be listed in the newsletters and port guides, and may receive a part of the profit from sales made to cruisers. They don't work for the cruise companies. This means that if you shop at a 'recommended' store you are probably paying more.

Lack of information about destinations: On this cruise we got a 14-page catalog of extra-cost land tours, but very little information about the islands themselves. My husband points out to me that we were paying for a 'cruise' and not a 'tour' so I shouldn't have expected a lot of free information, but my freeling is that this information vacuum is a way of herding you towards the more expensive options for tours and shopping.

The glitchy room key. The first three times my room key wouldn't work I accepted the "Help" Desks suggestion that something in my purse might have degaussed my key. After all, this had happened before. After the third try, though, I put the key into a plastic pouch that I wore around my neck and it still wouldn't work. On my fourth visit to the "Help" desk they suggested that perhaps my key and my husband's key were somehow incompatible, and after that the key worked fine.

All in all, I enjoyed the trip, but next time I will look for a cruise line that at least offers free bottled water to its customers.

*Suite travelers may have a free bar, but they have to pay extra for the suite.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Trip Report - Eastern Caribbean - March 2015 - From Seti to Ceti

The next day, it being close to my husband's birthday, I had arranged for a driver to take us to the Arecibo observatory and to anywhere else where there might be good opportunities to take photos.
Arecibo radio telescope

After a tour of the grounds, the driver took us around to different scenic locations. I had told him that I liked to see graffiti, so he took us to two different sites with impressive graffiti installations, including two by Zaya.

One of the sites was in the Santurce neighborhood of San Juan, where every year they have an annual graffiti festival and invite new artists.

Street art by Zaya in Arecibo (the town)
Street art by Zaya in Santurce

We also stopped by a small outdoor stand that was selling ceti empanadillos. Ceti are tiny fish that are mixed with other ingredients and then roasted in banana leaves. I found out later that Andrew Zimmern had talked about them
on his show. "Weird Food".
Ceti fish mixed with squash and seasonings,
and roasted in banana leaves.

Inside El Morro

The driver let us off in Old San Juan near El Morro. The grassy area outside the fort is a popular place to walk or to
fly a kite.

Locals flying a kite near El Morro

One of the places I had on my "must see" list was a gift shop/coffee house called "Poet's Alley". It has a nice ambiance, and there are even pads of paper available by the tables so that you can write a poem while you wait. Unfortunately in this instance it appears that the long list of interesting-sounding coffee drinks on the wall menu was almost totally mythical. They listed 'Song', 'Fable', 'Limerick', and 'Fairy Tale' cofee blends, but when I asked for them, they didn't have them. "What do you have?" I finally asked. "Mango." was the reply. It turned out to be a delicious smoothy with whipped cream on top, not the fruit tea I had been expecting. We will draw a veil over the quiche - just don't order it. The fact that the young man who served us looked as if he could have been the model for the rough hero of a romance novel made up for just about everything, though.

The lyrical coffee and tea list - almost totally

We did some more walking and then took a cab from an area near the port. Back to the hotel for 'Happy Hour'.