Caribbean Cruise

My husband and I decided to forgo a holiday gift exchange, and instead book a cruise as our gift to each other.  We travel often for work and adventure, but rarely do we completely let go with no calculated schedule.  At least not me since I research and plan our itineraries.  A seven-day Caribbean cruise in March aboard the Norwegian Dawn seemed perfect. Although our home state, Florida has many cruise departures, we chose Puerto Rico as our starting point.  Less time at sea and more time on the islands.

In San Juan, we rented a car and drove to the Serafina, a boutique beach hotel.  It’s located in Condado, the resort area of the city and perfect for staying close to the hotel at night with easy access to our car for day trips.  Since Hurricane Maria crime in the city had increased, but this area seemed safe with attractive restaurants.

“Let’s drive to the west coast,” my husband said the next morning. “It’s only an hour and forty minutes.”

I looked out our beach view and then down at the sunbathers by the pool.

“We have a two and a half days.  I’d like to spend one of those days in old town, but if you want to do a drive today, that’s fine.”  I secretly wanted to hang by the pool, something I rarely did.  “Why the west coast?”

“They have whales, and the waves and surf should be pretty big.”

“I’m game.” I said, knowing whale spotting wouldn’t happen so randomly.  “We can have lunch there.”

riconWell over three hours later of stop and go traffic we arrived in Ricon, a small but cute surfer hangout.  I was starving, irritated and ready to get out of the car. We stopped at a hilltop restaurant, luckily the food and drink amazing.

“Did you spot any whales?”  I asked after a while.  “Tomorrow, we stay closer to home.”

I got to know old town from my morning jogs.  We explored the fort and surrounding shops, had a leisurely pace and enjoyed the rest of our stay in Puerto Rico prior to boarding our ship.

biminibarOn the ship, we discovered the Bimini Bar on the top deck, aft overlooking the pool. Ironically, we were on the cruise to get away from some drama we have at our island house in Bimini.  It became our favorite bar where we could drink, smoke and meet new friends.  On our first day at sea, I sun bathed below it as I read, listened to live bands and swam in the pool.

At our first port of call, Barbados, we had no plans except possibly exploring the island by scooter. We walked through Bridgetown, an unattractive, busy port with our google map set on scooters for hire.  It led us to a questionable part of town, so we hailed a taxi.  After finding out the place closed our taxi driver, quite outspoken about deplorable conditions of Barbados economy, offered to drive us wherever we wanted to go.

“I’d like to see monkey’s,” I said.  “Or some history.”

“Well, I can’t guarantee monkeys since they’re wild.  But I recommend Gun Hill Signal Station for the views and history.”  He said with elegance.

It was worth the visit, so peaceful and full of information.  Next he suggested a good place for lunch only a 40 minute drive to the east coast, the wild coast.  The vegetarian choices were abundant, something I didn’t expect on the islands.  The scenery equally impressive.  Our driver pointed out a monkey crossing the road on our return drive, and he made it clear they were considered pests among the locals.  He was full of facts and opinions, and I liked his honesty.  Over lunch we learned he lived in Connecticut for a decade, but he’s truly Barbadian and loves his beloved island.

The following day, Antigua was a warm welcome.  An adorable port with plenty of shops, and friendly faces.  We found a scooter rental from a nice Canadian couple, turned local.  With map in hand, we set off sightseeing.  Up and down hills from St. Johns to historic Nelson’s Dockyard in English Harbour.  The marina was full of mega yachts and sailboats from around the world, admiring the view we sat for a beer.  Afterwards, we meandered through the rainforest along scenic Fig Tree road.  I felt free.  Our scooter hugged the coastline as I glimpsed at views of the turquoise sea, eventually finding our way back to the busy port.  It was a fine day indeed, and Antigua became my favorite port of call.

In St. Kitts I ran on shore, taking a break from the monotonous treadmill.  I’d been to the island previously, so I didn’t feel a need to see or do anything.  We took a taxi to a fort with a great view of the island, shopped at the port and chatted with others at the Bimini Bar.  Some never left the ship, while others ran to meet the last boarding call.  We fell in between the two extremes.

“So what are you doing tomorrow?” Someone asked.

“The airport beach.”  I said without hesitation.  “It’s a must see, they have YouTube video’s if you haven’t heard of it.”

“You’re the second one to say that,” she said.  “I guess I’ll get off the ship and check it out.”

I looked forward to our stop in St. Maarten with its famous airport at Maho Beach.  Jets arriving and departing so close, its wake sandblasting tourists below.  From the tiki bar we watched some tumble in the sand.  We spent hours observing, sipping and eating while checking arrival times for the larger jets. It was fun.  Prior to our afternoon stop we’d rented a car and drove a good portion of the island.  The damage from hurricane Maria was noticeable at the north tip, and traffic gridlocked leading up to Maho Bay.

stthomasOur last island St. Thomas, part of the US Virgin Islands, did not disappoint.  I sipped coffee while watching boats scoot about from our balcony.  Some sailboats seemed permanently anchored, and I felt in full vacation mode.  I wondered if the sailboats had to relocate from time to time to avoid fees.  After all they’re on prime property with a marvelous view.  We disembarked before noon and took a shuttle downtown, a short ten minute ride.  So many jewelry stores, but I didn’t need gems or diamonds.

“Free gift.” Several vendors called out as I passed.

I browsed a few, looking for a watch I’d seen with a certain brand and style in mind.  I didn’t find it.  We did stumble onto a quaint lunch spot.

“I’m craving a veggie burger.”  I told my husband prior to looking at the menu.

“Ha, you’re in luck.” He gloated.

Afterwards, we checked out a local art market and found our way back to the port.  We took a skyride to the top of a mountain for a good view.  A great way to overcome my fear of heights.  My hands sweated. The wind blew our hanging cage, but the view was priceless.cruiseship

Departure day was a full day of travel from the San Juan port to the airport with lots of waiting in between for our flight to Miami. We flew on a 737 Max, the same day and type of the one that crashed in Ethiopia.  My heart goes out to those on the plane and their family members.  It could have been anyone of those planes and I understand why they’re currently grounded.

Cuba after Castro’s death: Nine days of mourning.

A few days prior to a second visit to Cuba, I turned on the TV and Fidel Castro’s death headlined the news.

“Holy Shit,” I shouted to my husband.  “Our trip just got more interesting.”

His funeral would take place during the end of our brief five-day visit.  I figured it was an opportunity to see Cuba in a different light, in a positive way.  Until I learned of the mandatory nine-day grieving period.  No celebrating, no music, no alcohol.

Mixed news and comments came from the online news regarding how these rules applied to tourists.  Absolutely no alcohol, from a few sources.  Plenty of drinks available reported others.  How appropriate, typical conflicting news coming from Cuba.

I suggested we buy a bottle or two of alcohol from the duty-free shop at the airport, just in case.  After all, the four of us traveling together to Cuba enjoy our evening cocktails.  A complementary food buffet awaited at our gate.cuba1

“This is nice, do they offer this on every flight?” A friend asked?

“This is the inaugural flight for Jet Blue from Fort Lauderdale to Havana.”

We also enjoyed a special bag full of goodies, including a special t-shirt marking the occasion.

Waiting for our luggage and rental car in Havana took three times as long as the flight itself.  But we easily found our way to our base for the next few nights, the famous Hotel Nacional’.  At the hotel there was no music, but conversation and drinks flowed. It hummed with energy. We ran into Jesse Jackson in the lobby.  I smiled and he naturally extended his hand, I shook it and turned around for a photo opportunity with our friends.cubajessejackson

We took to the town for dinner, a short walk to a recommended restaurant.

“What do you mean no wine?”  I expected it, but we still asked.  The food was excellent but the place was eerily quiet, not even music played overhead. This seemed true everywhere we went, including the rooftop bar at a neighboring hotel.

cuba5Starting my day with a run along the Malecon always brings a smile to my face and sets a positive attitude for the rest of the afternoon. We waited for the red hop on/off bus a little too long, and ended up taking a tok tok style wagon powered by a man on a bike.   He decided to give us a tour along the way, the ghetto tour as we later referenced it.  Everyday living up close in personal along streets and alleys.  Everyone stared and we wondered what kind of sign was plastered on the cart as they all gazed from us down towards the tires.  Although interesting, when we finally arrived at the artisan market I was ready to disembark.

 

havana3We shopped, found the historic old quarters and stumbled upon the only lunch spot in town serving beer.  It was crowded but we scored a table and people watched while waiting for food. I even bought a copy of Granma, the official communist newspaper covering the life and death of Castro.  I got it for its historical value.

We did take the red bus around town and back to the Hotel Nacional.  Along the way we passed revolution square where they disassembled the stands and speakers left over from the previous days of speeches, honoring and remembering Fidel prior to their southern march to his final resting place in Santiago De Cuba.  I wanted to witness the large masses of people in the square, but as my husband pointed out the traffic would have been a nightmare.

The following morning I ran into the vice president of China in the lobby. His security forces swept though the hallway just as I passed in the opposite direction.  I noticed one of the security guard’s eyes widen, so I stepped back as he passed straight through to his limo awaiting outside.  Li Yuanchao and his men wore small pins of Mao and the Chinese flag.  He was short and walked with determination.  I smiled at the thought of almost completely blocking his path by accident.

We left Havana for the next portion of our stay in Varadero, a beach side resort described as having beautiful water and beaches.  For lunch we stopped at a crowded roadside grill along the way. It was one of the best meals we had in Cuba and as a bonus they served cold beer.  Our all-inclusive resort seemed charming at first until we realized we had to walk a half mile to our room.  Not a big deal, if it’s a once a day stroll. But all the action, restaurants and bars revolved around the lobby.  Overall, I wasn’t impressed by Varadaro. The beaches were marginal, food bland, rooms unattractive and activities lacking.  We made the best of it and explored some nearby caves and went shopping in town.  We even ventured into another dilapidated town to see “the real Cuba” with many horse-drawn carriages one last time.

Our last evening we finally heard music, the mandatory ban was lifted the following day. Cuba without music is like sunbathing on a beautiful beach without the sun or sand.  It is a large part of their culture and when music and dance is taken away, the people seem disheartened.

Were they sorrowful because of Fidel’s death?  I’m sure some were since he was the only leader they knew.  He is portrayed as a hero in all Cuban media.  But the ban came about because people were openly celebrating in the streets.  Imagine all the income lost from tourists due to the ban.  Perhaps they should have had nine mornings of mourning.