My brother used to live in Florida. One year Steve and I went to visit in January and we slept with the windows open. It was lovely, but it ruined us; now we love need to go somewhere warm every year during the winter. Our birthdays are a couple weeks after Christmas, so it's fun to celebrate by doing something together instead of exchanging more gifts. Last April we had planned to go on a Mediterranean cruise, but our plans fell through. I'm still getting over that, honestly. But the next best thing is a cruise somewhere warm in the winter, so we used our credit from Royal Caribbean to do just that.
We've been on one cruise before, in January 2004 (pictured) on Carnival's Imagination... Miami, Jamaica, and Grand Cayman with a day at sea in between each. It was warm, but far enough north in the Caribbean to be affected by the deep freeze that week. I remember huddling under my towel while I sat by the pool.
This time we decided to head farther south, flying to Puerto Rico to begin, and then stopping somewhere different each day. Right before we left I read this detailed review of a similar cruise written by a gal named Chrystal, and it ended up being a great description for our trip as well. Here are some highlights...
Old San Juan
We got a cab from the airport to the pier and dropped off our bags on the ship, hit the Windjammer (buffet) for lunch, and headed downtown. I had read that one can walk there from the port, but our ship was on the wrong side of the harbor so we cabbed it. It's funny how I get a picture in my head of how something is going to look, and when I get there it's totally different but it makes sense. Or at least this time that's the case. I had seen lots of pictures of the two forts on the city wall, so in my head all of Old San Juan was built from stone and was very level.
In reality it was vibrant and colorful with blue cobblestone streets built into the hillside overlooking the harbor with the open sea and forts at its back.
There is a touch of Spanish Colonial architecture with arches and carved wooden doors, but also very Caribbean with each house being a different pastel color, all with white trim. It was Saturday so a lot of locals were out flying kites and having picnics on the huge lawn outside the fort. Chrystal's review described getting a coconut shaved ice treat and I agree it was a fabulous way to spend $2. Steve and I walked around a bit and then headed back to the ship on account of an ominous cloud.
When we got back to the ship our stateroom attendant had brought chocolate-covered strawberries for my birthday. We changed for dinner, where we met our dining table-mates, Kitty & Ron, a dear sweet couple from Chicago who recently lost their 3-year-old son to brain cancer. They were in desperate need of a vacation and we thoroughly enjoyed eating with them all week. This is the view from our table. That night we set sail for the Virgin Islands. We did all of our sailing at night, and each morning we were someplace new.
The Serenade of the Seas is a nice ship; not the biggest but big enough. Our "porthole" stateroom had space to walk on either side of the bed, we had plenty of built-in storage plus a loveseat, but I hate claustrophobic showers. (I know space and water are at a premium, and even the balcony rooms have beam-me-up showers, but it's hard to shave when you can't bend over.) The food and entertainment on the ship were great. It was clean, the service was excellent wherever we were, and the cruise director (Bing Bong!) did a great job of keeping us entertained. I can't remember what went on which evening, but the entertainment during the course of the week included two shows by the ship's song & dance troup, an Olympic gymnast, a ventriloquist, a (clean) comedian, and the Newlywed Game starring fellow passengers. It was fun to be entertained and then crash into bed.
Steve and I were in St. Thomas to celebrate my 30th birthday, and both times we've gone I have had a cold. We made the best of it, taking our time getting up and getting room service for breakfast. Then we took a taxi to Brewer's Beach for some beachcombing.
There were plenty of shells and even some sea glass. It is the kind of place free from tourists where the locals spend their day off (It was Sunday), so we did some people watching and airplane watching (it's next to the airport runway) and headed back. On the way we stopped in Charlotte Amalie, but last time that's where we stayed and on Sunday the shops had closed up anyway, so we went back to the ship. Each day was kind of like this; we'd head out and explore the island in the morning, then head back to take showers and nap until dinner.
The week before our trip I came across a lampwork artist, Hope Gibson, living on St. Croix, and emailed her to see if she'd be interested in getting together for coffee. She offered to pick us up at the port and take us to see the famous beer-drinking pigs, then drop us in town. In reality she did so much more, giving us a tour of the west end of the island, stopping for photo ops, and giving us a local's perspective of life on the island. She's from Louisiana, but has lived on STC since before Hurricane Hugo (1989). The island is dotted with ruins of sugar mills, and I get inordinately excited about ruins. A wedding had been held recently in this "room" at Butler Bay Plantation; I can only imagine how beautiful that was. (Kind of like Ross and Rachel's Emily's wedding on Friends.) Hope drove us up through the rain forest and we did stop at the Domino Club for a drink and to see the beer-drinking pigs.
Then Hope dropped us off in Christiansted so we could get lunch and do some shopping. We found great food & beer with a view at Fort Christian Brew Pub, then we poked around at the shops in town before heading back to the port. St. Croix was part of the sugar trade, so Danish ships would come over using pottery as ballast, then they'd throw it overboard and fill the ship with rum and molasses to bring back home. The cool part of that story (to me) is the resulting "sea pottery" called chaney that still washes up on the shore. Local artists bezel-set it into beautiful jewelry. One person's trash is another's treasure.
This was Steve's birthday, so when we got back to the ship the stateroom attendant had brought him chocolate covered strawberries.
We had heard about Creole Cruises' Lobster Lunch from Chrystal's cruise review, and then I saw it as a top-rated activity on Trip Advisor, so we made reservations. Glenn picks you up in his beautiful new boat at the port, then you cruise along the north shore to uninhabited Bird Island for some snorkeling. We saw several kinds of fish and live coral (which apparently is not that common in the Caribbean). Our last snorkeling adventure wasn't great, but Steve and I both thoroughly enjoyed this spot and had no problems with our gear, the water, or the boat ride. After snorkeling we pulled up to a beach on Bird Island and had the most awesome lobster I have ever had.
Each of us had half a lobster hot off the grill, plus garlic bread, salads, and Glenn's own rum punch with cinnamon and nutmeg. There's nothing like eating in the shade on a beautiful beach while the waves lap at your feet. We walked up to the top of the island after lunch, and then did some more snorkeling at Starfish Garden, just off another uninhabited island with the beach covered in shells. I saw yellow, green, brown, and orange starfish; they were everywhere! Back on the boat and back to the port just in time for "all aboard." This was a fantastic shore excursion and I highly recommend it if you go to Antigua.
I had read how Chrystal had gotten up at 5:30 am to see the Pitons (mountains), so during the night I kept peeking out the window to see if we were there yet. At one point I did see the tip of the island but fell back asleep and missed the rest of the ship's approach. Was very disappointed as our plans were to just poke around town and not do a big excursion (Pitons are a couple hours from port). I was excited to learn that there was a craft market in Castries, but the best thing about it was that it had a roof. It was dimly lit and crammed with row after row of vendors selling all kinds of awful souvenirs made everywhere but locally. Then it began to pour down rain, so at least we were somewhere dry. The vendors often had their children there with them, and the kids would play on the floor or in the base cabinets of the stalls. So precious, and by this time I was really missing our girl. Outside was a produce market, and then we walked around the streets of the town, which felt genuinely foreign unlike the Virgin Islands. Stray dogs and chickens, lots of people but few tourists... ask me about the guy with three teeth and a conch shell. We checked our email briefly at a tiny internet cafe, then headed back to the ship for lunch and a nap. I was kinda wishing we had gone to see the Pitons, but I woke to the captain's announcement that we would be sailing right past them at dinnertime!
It was hazy and the sun was setting, but I got to play around with my polarizing filter.
I've been captivated with the concept of being able to smell spices in the air in Grenada, so when we were choosing the itinerary for the trip I definitely wanted to go there. My mental picture could have been correct, but by the time we got to Grenada we had spent so much money on extra stuff (cab rides, tips, drinks, excursions, etc.), plus I was reading a book on fiancial responsibility, so I didn't really want to fork over $60 for a cab ride to see a waterfall or nutmeg plantation. So we had a big breakfast, took the water taxi to nearby Grand Anse beach, rented chairs and an umbrella, and read and listened to all the Brits sitting nearby. (There was a P&O ship docked next to ours.) I am so glad we had the umbrella because being so far south I sensed that no amount of sunscreen would keep me from getting fried. After we returned to the ship and were eating lunch in the Windjammer the sky opened up and there was a downpour -- good timing! Naptime.
Our last day was at sea and we sat and read by the pool, watched some of the entertainment (belly flop contest, lecture about water, lecture about nutrition), had one last meal with Ron & Kitty, and packed our suitcases. It was a great trip but I was glad to come home.
Olivia did really well at my parents' house, except for the day she had the pukes. Mom and Dad (Gramma & Papa) did a great job and Livi has adjusted well to normal life. When we went to pick her up she ran over for hugs, and then wanted to be passed back and forth and back and forth until we drove home. My parents had a fun time with her, too, and we are SO grateful to have that gift of time away by ourselves.