Cedar Point


Take me on a Sea Cruise


Lost in Time in Fiji


The Royal Treatment


Enjoy Stress Free Travel


Climbing the Volcano


Hong Kong: Lived it, Loved it


Island in the Stream


Getting There


Christmas in Jakarta


Travels with Barney

Take Me On a Sea Cruise

By Elaine Weeks

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A tropical cruise in the dead of winter is always a treat and if it’s during your birthday, the turning older part doesn’t hurt nearly as much.

December 10, 2005 – a frigid morning, a balmy night

 

Our teeth are chattering as we heave our luggage into the back of the van. It’s all of 15F at 6:45a.m. and it’s pitch black out. With an icy wind stinging my face and the snow and ice crunching under my feet, I feel like I’m standing on the North Pole instead of our driveway in Windsor, Ontario.

To top it off, in one day I am about to turn a year older. This little detail would probably have hurt except that I’m on my way to the airport: my husband is taking me on a Carnival cruise, and the kids are staying home!

For the first time since my teens, I have actually been counting the days until my birthday.

I have recently become a cruise aficionado, or perhaps I should say, cruise-oholic. My first cruise was just a 4-nighter on Carnival’s “Fascination” from Miami to Key West and Cozumel but it was enough to get me hooked for life. There’s something about eating whatever and whenever you like, lounging in the hot sun poolside with a book in one hand and a tropical drink in the other, then coming back to your room at the end of the day to find a cute animal constructed of white towels perched on your turned-down bed that’s hard to resist.

That was a couple of winters ago and this cruise will be my third. My husband has picked up the bug too; this will be No. 2 for him. Our two kids joined us on his first cruise and our daughter Rosalie, who was nine at the time, had so much fun that we know we’re going to have to plan another one soon that will include her. We try not to feel too guilty as she waves from the living room window while we pull away.

We have booked our cruise through Travelocity.com and the whole process was very easy and satisfying. We got a good price plus, as they were having a special, a $100 voucher for a spa treatment on the ship, and they even sent us one of their cute gnomes which we call Jerome.
For a change of pace we decided to depart from somewhere a bit more exotic than Miami, a major embarkation point for Carnival Cruises.

Five hundred-year-old San Juan, Puerto Rico is our choice; we will stay for a day and a half before sailing on the “Destiny” for 7-nights through the southern Caribbean. Our huge ship will stop at four island nations: St. Thomas (U.S. Virgin Islands), Barbados, Dominica and Aruba.

Arriving at dusk in Old San Juan, our winter weary bones have already thawed thanks to the very civilized 84 temperatures. To make the most of our brief stay here we have chosen to bed down for the night in an unusual 300-year-old-inn overlooking the sea atop the north wall of old San Juan, which we discovered via the Internet. (www.thegalleryinn.com)

We love history and the idea of staying in what was once a ship captain’s mansion, now transformed into a virtual work of art (more about that later), is extremely tempting. Most people prefer to stay in modern, international hotels but we enjoy more eclectic accommodations that reflect the culture and history of their environs. In fact one of the big reasons we travel is to experience what is truly foreign to our lives at home.

As soon as we enter the open-air courtyard of the Inn Galleria, I know we have chosen well. Walking past the lush gardens to the reception desk my eyes dart over a plethora of statues, masks and fountains that seem to cover every inch of space.

Though we’re too late to meet Manny, the day manager and my jovial phone contact, we are warmly greeted by the night manager who leads us down some stone steps, through a French door and into an art bedecked hall way. A massive wooden door is pulled open and there is our home for the night: a huge canopied four-poster bed, piled high with pillows and cushions, with a rich antique rug as a backdrop, serves as the centre piece. Original paintings and sculptures grace every wall, nook, and cranny while a modern bathroom and air conditioning provide that right touch of comfort.

From our Internet research, we know the inn is within easy walking distance of the old port which appears to have a multitude of eateries, shopping and exploring opportunities. After changing into some weather appropriate clothes, we walk the short distance downhill along cobblestone streets to hunt for some dinner. Near the water’s edge we discover an outdoor market but due to the late hour, it is closing.

The street food vendors are still open however so we purchase some tempting fried plantains and cassava. Music from an impromptu band comprised of about a dozen elderly locals draws us to a bench beneath a centuries-old tree. We devour our tasty street food while enjoying the makeshift band of musicians and singers. The ice and snow of the morning are already a distant memory.

Resuming our meandering we discover that the Puerto Ricans take Christmas very seriously; the promenade is lined with an impressive light display that puts our city’s civic display to shame. We next encounter a large outdoor restaurant nestled in the bosom of San Cristobal, one of the two ancient forts guarding the Old City.

Though we are nearly full from our starchy snack, the pretty hostess, who beckons us to enter and listen to the band (about to start at any moment!), is hard to resist. Ten minutes later we are munching on ceviche (marinated raw fish salad), quaffing local brews and listening to an excellent 5-piece band that has materialized on cue, perched on a high platform against the fort wall.

We might have easily lingered until the wee hours but our full day of travel has tuckered us out. Plus, we have a fairly ambitious self-directed walking tour planned for the next day before boarding our ship. We bid adieu to our gracious hostess before the stroke of 12.

Back at the Galleria, we discover a party going on in celebration of the anniversary of the inn’s renovations. The inn’s owners have invited friends, long-time guests, artists and writers to partake. We’re tempted to join in but we hear our sumptuous room calling so we decide to be good kids and turn in for the night.

And then it dawns on me that I’m 49 and it hasn’t hurt one bit.


The Inn Galleria: a Bohemian Refuge

Completely restored in 1961 by artist owners Jan D’Esopo and Manuco Gandia, the inn first served as an artist’s colony of sorts. Then, 15 years ago, the owners decided to transform their home into an inn. Today, 22 beautiful, art-filled guest rooms are secreted throughout this 17-century historic building. Each is air conditioned with private bath and telephone, and brimming with antiques, books and whimsical Trompe L'Oiel walls. And the beds have all been thoughtfully appointed with comfy Tempurpedic Mattresses. Everything is for sale in the inn, even the mattresses!

The guests have access to numerous interesting rooms and spaces, including interior courtyards, patios, porticos and gardens, punctuated by tropical flowering plants, tinkling fountains and colorful exotic birds. The sounds of water, classical music, soft Spanish voices and chirping birds add to the sense of tranquility.

There is also a conference room, a banquet room and a music room with a nine-foot grand concert Steinway piano outfitted with the "piano disk" play and record system. Art is created in seven studios: painting, sculpture, mold making, cold casting, silk screening and there’s even a micro foundry for bronze casting.

The Inn Galleria is the perfect place to while away the hours drinking wine and having those sorts of conversations one only seems to have on trips when you know you’ll likely never see the other person again.

After a rejuvenating sleep Chris and I feast on a delicious made-to-order breakfast of fluffy cheese and veggie omelets in a cozy corner of the courtyard as a sudden but brief rain shower adds some tropical ambiance.
After this fortifying repast we hook up with Manny who instantly feels like an old friend.

While the inn’s resident toucans and parrots are brought outside to their perches in the front courtyard gardens he regales us with amusing stories about the inn which he calls a “a living, breathing art project” where no two days are alike. “The Inn Galleria can be described in three words,” says Manny, “romantic, eclectic and exotic. It’s not for everyone. Some people would find it too bohemian or even schizophrenic!”

Apparently the guests here are as interesting and diverse as the inn and many actors, including Steven Spielberg and Robert Duval, have slept here. In addition, the owners regularly schedule special talks or performances by famous artists, writers and musicians. Manny informs us that Deepak Chopra, holistic healer and renowned author, is scheduled to speak tonight. Too bad we’ll miss him.

Before we leave for our walking tour we climb the steep staircase to the roof’s “Wine Deck” to get our bearings. It is one of the highest points in Old San Juan and an excellent vantage point of the entire city.
The old city is one of the main cultural tourist attractions for Puerto Rico, and slips for massive cruise ships line the bay side. We are thrilled to see the “Destiny” in port and we marvel that it’s higher than any building in the area. We estimate it’s possible that we could walk to the boat from the inn save for the cobblestone streets and steep incline which would make rolling our luggage tricky.

Elmo Lives

Old San Juan has been called one of the most beautiful places on earth; it is certainly one of the most interesting. The old city is perfect for walking tours as it encompasses just over a square mile in area. Legend has it that the picturesque blue cobblestone streets were constructed of ship’s ballast but according to Manuco of the Galleria, the blue stones were ordered purposely for building the roads; being made of steel slag they were meant to last.

It looks like it might rain again but Chris and I aren’t worried about the prospect of getting wet. What’s a little rain compared to the ice and snow back home?

My husband, an observant map-reader, has noticed there is an historic cemetery nearby, at the ocean’s edge, so we decide to head there first.
We follow a steep embankment down through an old stone underpass to the gates of the Santa Maria de Magdalena cemetery. A turbulent sea serves as a magnificent backdrop for the maze of elegantly carved white crypts and headstones. We wish we can walk through the grounds but the iron gates are locked and dangerously high.

It is easy to see how the old town was once a fortress. Founded by Christopher Columbus and Ponce de Leon, San Juan was a stopover for ships traveling to and from Spain, making it an important port in the Spanish system. The Spanish developed a network of fortifications to protect the transportation of gold and silver from the New World to Europe. Puerto Rico doesn’t mean “rich port” for nothing.

The fort Morro rises at the entrance to San Juan’s protected harbour which once provided a natural defense from the infidels. There is a giant plain that rises up to the fort, the only open space in Old San Juan. Today, the US Park Service maintains the fort, as Puerto Rico is under control of the USA.

Morro provides an intriguing glimpse into what life was once like here in the second oldest Spanish colonial city in the New World, while the old city offers excellent examples of Spanish colonial architecture. Just a few steps from the fort, the streets are lined with striking buildings dating back to the 16th and 17th century – many painstakingly restored and painted a gorgeous rainbow of pastels. I can’t help feeling like I’m walking past giant birthday cakes!

We encounter significantly more people strolling through the streets in the day than at night but we wonder where they’re going – the main shopping area does not overly impress us. Many of the shops seem to be stocked with tacky trinkets and souvenirs. Then we discover the little laneways leading to interesting stores stocked with paintings and local crafts; we purchase some interesting clay repro artifacts of animals that double as flutes.

On one corner, we encounter an odd scene: a larger-than-life Elmo from Sesame Street is having his picture taken with tourists. What Elmo has to do with Old San Juan is anybody’s guess but the tourists seem to be getting a kick out of him.

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Back at the inn, we are excited at the prospect of beginning the next phase of our trip. But before we depart we sit with the elegant Jan, creator of many of the beautiful masks and sculptures decorating the inn.
Jan’s hip is mending from a fall from a horse so she has been holding court in her room for several weeks. Her husband is a horseman and Jan had recently taken up riding. She may be laid up but to us she looks like she is merely resting after a morning’s outing with friends.

After our brief visit we wish we could stay longer to become better acquainted with this fascinating couple but we must move on and reluctantly say our goodbyes. We hope to return some day to enjoy a longer stay so we can really appreciate the charms of this unusual inn where everyone immediately feels right at home.

We taxi down to the port to the inevitable long lines of cruisers waiting patiently to board our massive ship. Destiny has a capacity of 3,400 guests so we anticipate a long wait and have come prepared: Chris plugs in his IPOD while I crack open a book. At least the terminal is air-conditioned. Evidently, not so long ago, passengers waited in a hot, muggy building for hours on end.

After almost two hours, we make it through the line. (And we thought our “Carnival fun passes” would speed things up!) We spot the duty free shop and are surprised and delighted to learn that in Puerto Rico, Carnival allows passengers to bring alcohol on board at embarkation. We double check with the women at the till and are told that as long as it is packed in our luggage we should be fine. We load up on wine (two bottles for $7! – Italian and Chilean – not bad), a bottle of Puerto Rico’s finest rum, and a bottle of champagne to toast my birthday – all for $29 bucks.

Feeling somewhat revived, we enter the ship and find ourselves directly in the main lobby where we pause to get our bearings.

Destiny is an older model – built in 1996, she was the largest cruise ship in the world in her day. If Destiny were a land-based hotel, she'd probably be more than 30 stories tall! In fact, she is so long it is very easy to get disoriented.

(Here's a tip: Deck 5 is the only deck that allows you to move from the front to the back of the ship through her mid-section. If you are ever confused, head to Deck Five to get your bearings.)

Destiny has over 1,000 rooms and can accommodate 3,400 diners in two seatings. That's a lot of bodies. Despite all the people aboard we find the ship spacious and, save for the Lido Deck where most of the restaurants are located, it never feels crowded.

Compared to the much newer “Carnival Spirit,” our last ship, Destiny seems a bit dated, but everything appears to be in good shape. And we discover she is constantly being polished, vacuumed and cleaned, from top to bottom.

A good sign – our bags are waiting for us outside Stateroom 6333, our home for the next week. In the end, we wish we had booked a port side room, as the starboard rooms tend to get the dock or sea views in port. Small matter really. The cabin is fairly roomy for two people, though if we were in a hotel I am sure it would've felt cramped. But we are cruising and the first thing my husband does is hunt down our cabin steward, Edmond, to become his new best friend.

Edmond locates a large ice bucket for us to keep our champagne and wine chilled and ensures that the ice is always replenished. And he puts our cleaning lady at home to shame: after Edmond works his magic, our room is spotless – twice a day – and one of his cute towel animals greets us every night.

The lack of a fridge in the cabin is surprising, but otherwise, the amenities are great: lots of closet space, and a fantastic bed. This was our first sail with a balcony and we will always book one on future cruises. Nothing like sitting on your own deck, drinking Bacardi Old Rum with house lemonade, and watching the sun go down!

Breakfast in Bed – Dinner in the Captain’s Mess

I loved Destiny’s ports of call. In fact, the main reason Chris chose this ship was to visit a whole set of islands in one pass. Destiny’s itinerary offers an interesting glimpse of the southern Caribbean islands, which we have never visited even though we’ve travelled to more than 40 countries. The islands are diverse, friendly and offer a wealth of excursions for even the most jaded traveller. San Juan was a bonus for us, so we can say we saw five really distinctive Caribbean islands in one trip.

The weather was a bit unsettled as we pulled out of Old San Juan and we hoped we weren’t doomed to rain throughout the trip. But when we awoke in St. Thomas, it was a perfect day in paradise – crystal clear blue skies and very warm.

Our starboard view of the port wasn't terrific but we were interested in the activity below us. Evidently all food for the cruise is loaded in St. Thomas, while fuel is loaded on at San Juan. According to the Hotel Director, there is enough food and fuel onboard for two entire cruises – just in case!

After a delightful and healthy breakfast in bed, (room service: yogurt, bagels, granola, fruit and tea – we’re trying not to pig out, something that is easily done onboard!) a look at the harbour reveals an idyllic scene: sailboats bobbing against the backdrop of green hills.

We look forward to doing some exploring but decide not to rush off the boat. As there are so many ports in just seven days, it is possible to dash around the whole trip and never actually take the time to relax. It is actually quite relaxing to stay on board when everyone is piling off to enjoy a cocktail by the pool, or on your balcony, before heading to shore.

In our case we were exhausted from a tough year in business, so instead of herding off the boat with the majority of the passengers we meandered over to the pool. Only a few fellow slowpokes were spread out on the deck chairs.

After a refreshing swim and some toasting in the sun we are ready for the spa. On our last cruise, we discovered that the spa is a great alternative to the shower in your room. There's a steam and sauna, a hot tub in the exercise room and it is a perfect way to kick start your day. Chris used it five days out of seven.

Around 1pm, several hours after docking, we are finally ready to disembark. At the port things are hectic. We are surprised by the amount of traffic for such a tiny island and wonder where everyone is going in such a big hurry.

Fortunately, the hustlers aren’t particularly aggressive. This appears to be a very rich island and the locals don't have to work too hard as five or six ships sail into port every day. (St. Thomas is the number one cruise ship destination in the Caribbean.)

We heard the beaches were pretty fabulous although reports from other cruisers indicate that the famed Meghan Bay is quite small and tends to get very busy with cruisers. We took a pass as we figure there will be lots of time for beaches in Barbados and Aruba. Instead we walk along the seawall into the town: Charlotte Amalie.

To our surprise and delight, we discover its historic district and spend the afternoon strolling along clapboard buildings and ducking down narrow laneways. Beer is sold everywhere and cold, crisp Caribe brews help to fortify us as we wander about in a blissful haze of tropical heat.

Despite our sizable breakfast we begin to feel hunger pangs and go on the lookout for an enticing restaurant. We spot a menu for a place called Gladys’ Restaurant tacked to the wall of a laneway we haven’t yet explored. A man stationed near by notices our perusal and is quick to assure us that we won’t be disappointed. He will even show us the way.
Somehow this middle-aged American doesn’t look like a typical tout so we decide to take him up on his offer. As we follow him through the twists and turns of the laneway, we learn that he is a transplanted Californian artist who occasionally helps Gladys out for a little extra cash when he isn’t creating his art.

Our guide does not lead us astray. If you have a hankering for Creole spicy food Gladys’ is the spot. Chris could tell as soon as he spied a basket of scotch bonnet peppers, one of the hottest peppers on earth – strategically located on the bar.

Chris orders the curried mutton while I sample a spicy lobster sandwich. These were accompanied by a couple of local beers and of course some of Gladys’ famed hot sauce. The food is delicious and the ambiance in the small but busy restaurant delightful: exposed brick walls, colourful local paintings, lush plants and large windows providing a view of the laneway lend a dreamy quality. I feel almost like we’ve been incorporated into one of the paintings.

As a souvenir, we purchase one of Gladys’ hot sauces (unavailable on the web unfortunately) and now, whenever we use it at home, we’re transported right back to her wonderful restaurant.

A neat little shop in town is the Black Beard Brewing Company which doles out free samples of beer brewed right on the island. The girl handing out the drinks could have used a couple herself but we manage to get her smiling by the time we leave. Of course we buy two bottles to enjoy while strolling the two miles back to the Destiny, which dominates the port like some renegade iceberg.

Back at the ship, there are long lines of people waiting in the blinding sun of late afternoon to get on board. Next time we’ll hang out in one of the cafes along the port and enjoy a beer until the very last minute – then board.

There’s a letter waiting for us in our cabin inviting us onto the bridge for 4:45pm. which is close to when the boat will be pulling out of port. On our last cruise we had hoped to see the bridge but had been denied access. Evidently this call is up to the captain.

We report to the Purser's desk at the appointed time and are promptly escorted to a hidden passageway and onto the bridge. We immediately hit it off with Captain Angelo Los, a very fine gentleman, who, we are surprised to discover, lives close to our hometown.

We are waiting for one passenger to report to the info desk before the ship can sail. Chris is fascinated with Angelo’s explanations of the mysteries of the ship, including how the giant vessel glides away from the dock; when the passenger is accounted for, the propellers turn sideways for this maneuver and we feel the behemoth gently begin moving.

We spend almost two hours with the captain and his able crew. The bridge is extremely quiet which surprises me as I thought that there would be orders shouted and crew rushing about. Cutting edge computers run the ship and the chief purser tells us that the Destiny is steered with one joystick sized lever!

We are duly impressed. The crew is equally remarkable; safety is the number one consideration in everything that takes place onboard.
After sunset, we are a bit mystified to see the men switching on dim red lights. Apparently, the bridge has to be kept as dark as possible to ensure all hands keep a sharp lookout for anything ahead. The other interesting thing we notice is the lack of chairs; evidently staying on their feet keeps the crew more alert.

As if this wasn't a big enough thrill, especially for Chris, the captain then invites us down to his private dining room in the officer's galley for dinner. How can we refuse?

At the appointed hour, we are escorted into what the crew refers to as the “1-95” (named after the coveted U.S. visa) – a wide passageway that runs almost the length of the ship below Deck One. We are startled to witness the flurry of activity; there are almost 1,200 crewmembers working aboard ship and they all live on three decks we passengers rarely get to see.

We are a bit taken aback by how understated the captain’s mess is especially compared to the much more extravagant passenger dining rooms but the meal is incredible (tender calamari, lobster tail, filet mignon and baked Alaska for dessert) and the company interesting: we are joined at our table by the chief navigator, chief engineer, chief environmental officer and chief medical officer, all Italian save the doctor who hails from New Jersey.

After dinner, we almost reluctantly return to the surreal world of our fellow passengers. We stroll to the top deck and lean against the railing to marvel at the “lite-brite” sky. The sea is tranquil and as the mighty vessel quietly slips through the night, I rejoice in the knowledge that we still have six days and nights left to celebrate my birthday in paradise.

Maybe, if the stars all line up, I’ll be lucky enough to spend my 50th on another exotic cruise.

If not sooner!

 

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