[A rather perfunctory 'blog' of our recent trip Nov 27-Dec 9 2018]
Our one and only cruise experience—to the Greek Islands in 2016—had been surprisingly successful so we thought we’d do it again, choosing the S. Caribbean—Aruba, Bonaire, Grenada, Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Kitts, St. Maarten—since it seemed to offer most of the advantages of cruising—less cruising, more stopping—and a smaller ship
Getting to the ship provided more drama than we’d have wished for.
For the Greek islands, we'd just hopped off at each and done our own thing but it seemed wiser to book excursions on each island this time. This was more complicated than you’d anticipate; our travel agent died unexpectedly in the middle of the arrangements and may not have been on top of her game at the end: she hadn’t caught a couple of instances when the cruise arrived after the excursion had set off. We caught these and had to cancel some early bookings.
But after the dust had settled one excursion, I suddenly realized, required kayaking and then snorkeling. I’m good for about 10 minutes of kayaking but not for much more and imagined watching a group of ripped twenty-year olds disappearing over the horizon ahead. So I signed up for the gym, threw my back out in the first week and spent three days barely able to walk...then realized that that excursion was one of the ones we’d cancelled and had instead booked the more civilized “Sailing and Snorkeling” instead!
We’d also—at the suggestion of our travel agent—put the flights to and from the ship in the hands of the cruise line as we were promised that if there were any problems the cruise line would handle them. So when we boarded the first flight and the chap two seats across from me got sick as we were waiting for take-off, delaying take-off for an hour, and as a result we missed our connection in Toronto, we weren’t too distressed. In Toronto, we phoned the cruise line and found out that yes they’d take care of the flights required to catch up to the cruise but not the two nights of hotel or meals required!
We did make the cruise ship before it left but we’ve crossed Oceania off our list of future cruise vendors…and that was before we found out on our return that the Riviera, the ship we were on, was prone to Norovirus— and we thought we had grumbles!
Cabin was pleasing when we got on board, and we set off in relative cold of 68F...but better than the 37F we'd left. And it gradually got warmer as we cruised past Cuba until it was definitely warm by the second day.
Flat as a board (well a couple of 300' bumps off to the north) but the Sailing/Snorkeling trip was brilliant. Out on the catamaran, on the 20 minute ride to the first snorkeling stop, they were handing out flippers; I took a pair but the older (80's +) large ladies sitting next to us turned them down, which was not unexpected. I asked them whether they just enjoyed the sailing, a question that seemed to puzzle them. When we got to the snorkeling spot, they reached for their bags and pulled out pairs of pukka fluorescent green matching flippers, goggles and dive boots, put them on and plunged off the boat like dolphins. The water was unexpectedly cool and while I got used to it I was glad to get out after about 20 minutes having seen a lot of very colorful fish. The old ladies were gone for an hour and had seen a puffer fish and lobsters.
A bust as it turned out. A squall hit us in the morning but the clouds lifted and Lyn was very keen to do the Electric Bike Tour so we eventually found the guide and set off in a truck out of town to pick up the bikes. No sooner had we arrived at the house than a second squall loomed dark overhead; I was already frozen from the truck ride and not as confident as the others were that it would "soon be over" so I bailed on the bike ride and took a cab back to the ship to dry out. At the end of the day, I met up with Lyn and sure enough, a major dump of rain had arrived as I departed and with follow-up squalls threatening from the intended direction of the bike ride, the guide had finally cancelled the tour...15 minutes after I left. So Lyn had a brief visit to the town and arrived back on the ship in time for the art classes (that she has been going to from Day 1).
Quite a disappointment, as we hadn't seen a lot of Aruba, and saw even less of Bonaire so thus far our experience of the Islands had been superficial.
Bit of an improvement in that we awoke to find ourselves in a tidy harbour town (St. Georges) with a bit of bumpy landscape at last. But the cruise ship got in late and left early that day and it was a Sunday to boot so our options were limited. We took a walk around a bit of a shabby town (not helped by the hurricane that hit the S. Caribbean a year ago), past about 10 Canadian banks. It's a pity as looking at the web later, it seems as though there is lots to do further up the island.
I was booked for a volunteer day with the Salvation Army, and spent the time there chopping carrots and cauliflower and chatting with the good ladies in the kitchen. Hilarious. They verified what I had experienced when I was trying to find the place: that Barbadians have a curious relationship with directions. If they point left, they could mean 'turn right' and if you are told to look out for a brown house, be prepared for the house to be green. I admire the Sally Ann. I'm uncomfortable with the military/Christian model, but darn they do good work. I asked about their beliefs and workings, and Marissa explained everything patiently but made no attempt to convince me to join them. Very nice people.
Lyn had an adventure with a guided tour group that she arranged spontaneously, and enjoyed herself.
We only saw Bridgetown and not much of that. The economy is down and the town looks a little seedy. Of course, that was bound to be the case around the Sally Ann, but Lyn reports a similar impression. Not a great deal of contour to the countryside.
It was peeing with rain when we got up and there was Castries, the port/capital of St. Lucia shrouded in mist down to the water! But here at last was a really hilly almost mountainous terrain. We were supposed to be doing a 7 hour day-trip including just about everything and the weather didn't look promising but when it let up after breakfast we decided to chance it.
We met the crew of the catamaran offering to take us down the coast and back for the day. This was a larger boat than in Aruba and there were about 30 others on board, and more importantly, lots of cover! We set off more or less on time, and headed out past cliffs shrouded still in rain; we had a couple of squalls on our way south to Soufriere. An hour and half later we saw the two Pitons (photo at left: Gros at 2530'; Petit at 2438') ahead at the South of the island...and suddenly we were heading out to sea instead of into town! The captain had spotted a pod of pilot whales. As we approached he cut the engine and we drifted towards them. They didn't seem the least perturbed, and continued to roll about and around the boat. Then we saw dolphins—about 30 of them another 50 meters on—and actually had a few surface and dive alongside.
But then they all disappeared; we turned into Soufriere and disembarked. We spent most of the day around this, the original capital of St. Lucia. The highlights were a tour of the gardens, where we saw a wide variety of plants from all over the world that seem to do very well here. We were guided by "Alexander the Great", and figured by the rate of his deliery that he had sampled a great deal of coffee before we arrived! Then headed up to look at the still steaming mud pools in the caldera of the volcano 1000 feet above Soufriere that, we were assured, had been dormant for 250 years...it was only if the steaming were to stop that we would have any reason to flee the area.
Did a bit of snorkeling on the way back up the coast (photo at right; Lynda the dolphin featured); floated into Marigo Bay to have a look at Mick Jagger's various palaces scattered up the hillsides; were dropped off right next to the cruise ship on the way back. As there had been free drinks available for the ride back (alcohol cannot be served before snorkeling), the captain had to announce a dozen times that ONLY the cruise ship passengers should disembark here.
Finally felt as though we had got to know the island a bit better than the others. Lots here to see.
Nice to have clear, sunny skies on our way in this morning. Bit of a wind, and two large cruise ships right behind ours when we tied up. Our excursion this morning is titled "St. Kitts Highlights". Our guide is a Rastafarian type who introduces himself as "Jean the Magician" and keeps up a good patter as we ramble across to the other cruise ship pier and pick up more subscribers. Then we drive around town and head north up the coast from Basseterre. It's a hilly rather than mountainous island, but with a few lumps in the distance that apparently we're heading for. The lower slopes apparently once were all sugar cane fields but the government finally got fed up with subsidizing a losing harvest (on this island) and went wholly for tourism. Since then, it has gradually developed housing on the old cane fields and we pass through a series of villages named after the owners of the plantations once here. It all looks a little ramshackle but not run down and we enjoy the continuous stories of Jean's early life in these parts. After about a pleasant 45 minutes (and a stop at a very pleasant garden) we reach Sandy Point and climb 800 feet to the fortress at the top, (the bus passing with inches to spare through a series of narrow stone arches) for views over this side of the island.
It's finally the sort of get-to-know the island tour that we had hoped for. The other trips had been touristy activities giving us very little insight into the island, the commerce, and way of life. This tour at least gave us a bit of a feel for St. Kitts and how "Kitticians" live.
Our last stop! We were supposed to stop in St. Maartens for a hike along the coast, but a last minute change required us to sign up for a hike/swim on Tortola. We were up for breakfast before the ship docked in Road Town, the capital of this the largest island of the 60 some in the British Virgin Islands. We mounted our safari style (open-sided) tour taxi and our guide this morning was a cheerful gentleman with the unusual habit of delivering each of his ponderous pronouncements...twice, lest, one supposes, one didn't catch the first of each jewel of knowledge. Road Town port is built on salvaged land at the bottom of a kind of cavernous bowl of hills with housing going all the way up to some 1500 feet. Very hilly. We began our tour with a hair-raising climb on a busy road about 2.01 cars/buses wide (lots of traffic heading the other way) to about 1200 feet, and at that point crossed above the town heading north to our destination of Sage Mountain. Since the peak was measured at 1782 feet, we had expected a bit of a hoof for our hike but it turned out that we drove up 1500 feet of it and the "hike" consisted of a bit of mucky slog up between very dense undergrowth to reach the view platform at the top. Still, we had good views and about a mile total hike so it was better than nothing. Then out, and down to the Atlantic coast for a swim on a beach crowded mostly with people speaking German. Finally on the drive back, a quick view of the US Virgin Islands in the distance, as well as a steady recount of who owned which of the BVI group of islands, and how much each could be rented for.
But it was another good day in terms of getting to know the island and its history.
I suppose we went with half a mind to see whether and which of the islands might be worth returning to. If we'd thought it through we'd have realized that our excursions would not take us to the places we might like to return to, so we'd have make do with vague impressions. Likely any and all of the islands have sufficient interest for a week; St. Lucia and Tortola looked mountainous enough to have interesting hiking. Less impressed with St. Kitts and Barbados but that might be for entirely wrong reasons.
The "national bird of St. Kitts" is the Brown Pelican and we saw these on most of the islands. But the commonest bird was the Frigate Bird. There are three varieties: the Great, the Lesser and Something in Between. All three could sometimes be seen overhead at the same time, but only once or twice did we see them dive for fish. Saw Brown and Red-footed Boobies out to sea, skimming the waves and looking for fish; two species of hummingbird on St. Lucia. But surprisingly we didn't see that many birds, possibly because they generally come out in the mornings and are scarce during the heat of the day.
One would have thunk it advisable to dock cruise ships in the more refined parts of town where tourists can wander in and blow all their money in a wide variety of ways before they rush back on board in time for lunch. But no, we often (but not always) disembarked in a distinctly industrial area some distance from "town".
If you've cruised you'll know the drill but for those of us still getting used to the idea, it is a different life. The cabins are comfortable—one doesn't expect spaciousness but they aren't too snug either, a large enough bed and plenty of room in the bathroom—bath and separate shower. We had a verandah with a door that could be kept open—as we did for our Greek island cruise—but this time we kept shut for most of the trip because it was either too windy out or there was rain.
Filling one's time while not on shore was a slight chore. There were activities during the day—Lyn did art classes every day; I went to the gym or drank coffee and wrote but there is also a library and ping-pong (I went once but the table was out by the pool on an open deck and mostly open to the winds so that the ball had a mind of its own). The TV offered a selection of about 3 news channels, 6 channels for Oceana's cruise products and one movie channel (eg Bogey in 'Key Largo'); internet would be better titled intermittent-net.
The coffee bar looked out over the pool and that more or less defined the divide. There were those who claimed the loungers around the pool as soon as the sun rose and barely moved all day. Some went for an occasional swim, if only to reassure onlookers that they were still among the living. A regular contingent marched steadily around the pool all day—some of them for the exercise.
Our fellow passengers are of a certain cut. Those unable to afford the expense obviously weren't here and neither were those rich enough to afford their own yachts, and there was an odd assortment of us in-betweens: some showed up to dinner dressed formally while there were others sporting beards, tattoos and ragged shorts...not that there's anything wrong with dressing formally of course. Lyn and I both felt uncomfortable with the food waste. We did notice that unlike the Celebrity cruise we were on, food was dished out by servers rather that allowing passengers to help themselves. This did perhaps prevent people from taking more than they needed but I found too often that the servers gave me more than I really wanted so presumably there was some kind of trade-off. Food was very good. We opted for the buffet dining throughout the trip and only booked in the specialty restaurants once. The restaurant was good but not so far above the considerably large range of options in the buffet that it was worth the inconvenience of a fixed time and menu.
We often shared a dining table with others and had the predictable conversations. Most had cruised a lot (we were the exception) and talk was about past cruises and places, which were of some interest. Politics generally carefully avoided although my suspicion is that many of the Americans were Democrats. I did get into a Brexit discussion with one Leaver. Quite a few Brits on board actually, which in large part only reaffirmed my original decision to move to Canada.
People on this trip were a little more friendly than on the Celebrity cruise; more European than American. The ship was half the size of the Celebrity and we did notice that it seemed to register the buffeting of the waves and winds a little more as a result. Nothing major though. We heard that two women who had been aboard the Queen Mary coming across the Atlantic had broken their legs in separate mishaps so there is some adventure to cruising!
In case you're wondering, we have started to lean away from doing another cruise. The root of this is that of 288 hours away we only had 65 on land and there isn't much to do other than eat and drink (coffee only so-so) while confined to a limited space.
The tone of these notes seems a level more grey than the actual trip and I'm not sure how that arises. The trip was actually a pleasant enough break; the shipboard routine occasionally dull but pleasant nonetheless. The greyness probably reflects a poor start to the cruise (and annoyance with the cruise line); weather that was more rainy and overcast than we'd expected; and a longer haul at sea that showed up the difference between activities that we enjoy and those that we don't. But as first noted, it was nice to get a break, to see some of the islands and get some warmth. I should probably be embarrassed to admit that such luxury was ho-hum in any way!