Monday, August 31, 2009

Cruising the Eastern Caribbean for Levelers

 A typical week-long eastern Caribbean cruise includes San Juan, Puerto Rico; St. Thomas, USVI; Antigua; Tortola, BVI; and Nassau, Bahamas. Here are some impressions, tips and warnings in case you are planning to continue summer or flee winter by cruising south.

 San Juan
Arrival a little before 5 p.m. and departure at midnight didn't leave much time for sightseeing, but I had a mission. I wanted to see the cathedral where Ponce de Leon, "discoverer" of Florida, was buried and sample a Pina Colada at Barrachina Restaurant, where the drink was supposedly invented in 1963.

Tip: Having a mission - something to see, find or do - at a destination livens up a trip. Even if it proves less than memorable, getting there and back usually is.

A $7 cab ride - they give printed receipts! - took me to a high spot - literally - in Old San Juan, which turned out well because everything else was downhill.

One mission accomplished, I headed to Barranchina, a pretty if touristy place to idle where the bartender was from New Jersey!

Warning: Don't gawk and walk at the same time. Sidewalks and streets in scenic Old San Juan are cobbled, cracked and anything but level.

See what I mean about uneven surfaces .... image courtesy of Puerto Rico Tourism Co.

I come by that advice firsthand. I did try to walk and gawk, took a bad spill and had to spend the rest of the night on board RICEing (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation).

It did, however, require hitting another fun place, Puerto Rico Drug Co., est. 1850, a 9,500-square-foot emporium of rum, cold beer, groceries, electronics, souvenirs and, whew, Ace bandages.

Tip: If the Duty Free shop in the ship terminal is having a sale, don't miss it. Bought a bottle of my favorite perfume for half of their price.

St. Thomas
"Bustling" is the word for this port, "shop, shop, shopping" for its downtown. We took a three-hour excursion to an overview from which we saw Charlotte Amalie, capital of the Virgin Islands; to the Northside for a look at Drake's Passage; to Mountain Top, supposedly home of the banana daiquiri, then to Emerald Beach for lunch and, as it turned out, a wedding.

That left all afternoon for shopping - the ship departed at 6 p.m. - but I found the prices a bit high. With three other ships in port, it was crowded and perhaps the merchants had made enough sales they didn't have the incentive to bargain.

Tip: The island is mountainous so see it by safari van. They'll drop you off downtown, which is flat, and you can take a jitney to the ship terminal. Don't forget, though, there is invariably a hefty hike before you reach yours. If you are tempted to take a boat excursion or try out a water sport, this is the stop to do it.

English Harbour, Antigua

  This is the place for history buffs. Antigua was the Caribbean base for the British Royal Navy in its heyday; Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson met Lady Hamilton here.

Most van tours hit the high - literally - spots, Dow's Hill Visitors Center,  the Blockhouse and Shirley Heights Lookout. The views are great but save yourself for Nelson's Dockyard, the world's last Georgian naval dockyard still in use. History comes alive in these fascinating buildings. You'll want to wander the docks, too, where today's well-heeled sailors tie up.

Tip: Antiguans are sweet, even when you tell them no. Found the best prices here, too. Head back to the ship early enough to sit at a cafe near the terminal entrance, sip a cool beverage and watch the street performers. Between their antics and those of returning cruisers, it's the best entertainment in town.

This may be the dearest, sweetest island of them all. We took a four-hour excursion around the island with Elroy, owner, driver and raconteur of Elroy's Pleasure Tours which again, hit the high-up spots.

He told us the island was named for its turtle doves, not sea turtles, that the frequent speed bumps were called "silent policemen" and described Bomba Shack, a jumble on the side of a cliff that had been thrown together from hurricane debris, as the island's "most powerful restaurant." After the 2008 hurricane season, it was probably blown down but I hope it has been re-assembled.

Tip: If your ship, like ours, arrives in the morning and leaves mid afternoon, you won't have time to tour the island and shop downtown. If you can snag Elroy, tour.

Of all the islands we hit, this is the one I'd go back to first.

Winds kept us from docking in Nassau, but having been there before I really didn't miss it. There are a few fun things to do, kids love to tour and swim at Atlantis on Paradise Island and you can finish any leftover shopping, but relax on a beach or enjoy the ship is my recommendation.

Tip:  There are an ocean's worth of bargains out there this time of year, especially in the Caribbean, but make sure you pin down in writing exactly what the cruise line's policy is on hurricanes, tropical storms and/or missed ports. This is a good time to consult a travel agent. You'll save money in the long run.


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